‘Telemarketers’ Review: An HBO Doc From Muckrakers Who Made A Home In The Muck

This three-part expose of a charity fundraising scheme is shocking, but it's also something else: a document of the 20-year friendship of two insiders who laid bare the corruption of a predatory industry.

Patrick Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern Courtesy of HBO

Sam Lipman-Stern was, in many ways, a typical kid of the 2000s — after all, what teenage boy of that era didn’t spend his formative years posting shaky handheld footage on YouTube for that sweet, sweet serotonin rush of watching the view count go from 0 to 1? Lipman-Stern’s channel, which in 2007 averaged around 40 views per clip, featured hits like “Wake Up Larry Lazarre” (a friend asleep at his desk) and “Oh Word?????” (an interview with a female friend who described her ideal man as one who would “do fellatio, front and back”). Normally, channels like these would be lost to the recesses of time, but Lipman-Stern’s grainy recordings have ended up as foundational footage for an HBO docu-series produced by the Safdie brothers, with Lipman-Stern himself as star and co-director (the other being his cousin, Adam Bhala Lough). What made his videos different? Well, for one thing, instead of clips of tweens running down school hallways, his recordings were of middle-aged drug addicts giddily chugging beers in their run-down office cubicles. This is because after dropping out of ninth grade, Lipman-Stern took the only job available to him as a barely pubescent boy: a caller for the Civic Development Group (CDG), an organization that ran a charity fundraising scheme now known to be the largest telemarketing scam in American history.

The series, bluntly titled Telemarketers, follows Lipman-Stern and his heroin-addicted ex-convict coworker Patrick J. Pespas as they become improbable documentarians in a quest to take down Big Telemarketing from the inside. It takes quite a few tries (and more than a few years) to make it stick, and the revelations are more depressing than thrilling. The slow-burning portrayal of powerful organizations steeped in corruption should make for a pretty dispiriting watch, but it ends up anything but. Telemarketers is a fascinating portrait of a predatory industry, but it’s even better as a devoted character study, a warm-blooded testament to friendship, and an antidote to cynical acquiescence. 

Telemarketers drops a lot of bombshells throughout its three-episode run, but one of the hardest pills to swallow might be learning just how many people actually pick up calls from telemarketers (spoiler: it’s a lot). The now-closed Civic Development Group was many things, but no one could claim it wasn’t effective. CDG’s fundraising scheme allowed the company to donate just 10% of the money collected to nonprofits like the Fraternal Order of the Police and pocket the rest. CDG’s masterstroke was understanding that people were unlikely to donate to random 21-year-olds making minimum wage, but if they believed a decorated policeman was on the line asking for their help, it might be a different story. One Telemarketers interview subject recalls being told to deepen his voice, sound more “authoritative,” and refer to the police as “the guys” (“can the guys count on your donation?”) in order to make people assume he was a cop while leaving enough room to not get sued for false representation — an approach that worked wonders. It only spirals down from here: as Telemarketers shows in detail, this is about the least fraudulent maneuver undertaken by CDG.

So why would anyone agree to be part of such a blatant scam, especially when they were paid only $10 an hour with no commission? In part, because it was fun. According to Tom White, a former CDG manager, CDG “would allow the guys to do whatever they needed to do to get through their shift.” Need some weed, coke, heroin, even a pet pitbull? Ask the guy at the next cubicle. Want a tattoo? Someone’ll give you one as you make a call. Like turtles? There’s a really tiny one crawling on that guy’s keyboard. Fan of violence? Go dunk your friend into a trash can. But more than anything else, CDG employees stayed because they needed those jobs. They were ex-convicts, high school dropouts, drug dealers; in other words, people who couldn’t get hired anywhere else. Lipman-Stern’s (refreshingly informal) voiceover describes the dilemma for his friend Patrick J. Pespas: “On one hand, Pat needed the job to survive. On the other, he was like ‘this scam has been going on for way too long, and you and I are the only ones who can finally stop it.’” 

Without Pat, Lipman-Stern would likely never have shifted his focus to CDG itself and the “shady shit” going on behind the scenes. But Patrick J. Pespas is more than just the doc’s driving force; he’s its beating heart. If there were an Emmy category for Best Documentary Subject, Pespas would easily sweep. He makes his best sales while conked out on heroin, he rants against George W. Bush’s ignorance about global warming in between puffs from a joint, and he openly lambastes the blatantly exploitative practices at his place of work. With his beloved baby-blue gingham blazer and penchant for throwing food to alligators from highway overpasses, Pespas becomes the intrepid reporter to Lipman-Stern’s cameraman, the wild card to his affable straight man, the manic pixie dream telemarketer to his aimless protagonist in need of purpose, and according to Lipman-Stern himself, “the only person in my life who believed in me.” As Lipman-Stern grows up, his idolatry for Pat quiets into a warm, fond amusement, but watching their bond change and persist over the years is nothing short of heartwarming.

Sam Lipman-Stern Courtesy of HBO

That’s the Telemarketers difference — as important as exposing the telemarketing industry is to this series, it’s not just the revelations that separate this show from the pack; it’s the duo at its center. Their insider’s perspective is indispensable; they’re muckrakers who made a home in the muck first. But more than that, they’re immensely likable people, and we get to watch them grow and age in real time. The series may be marketed as a hard and fast investigative doc, but it achieves the same rare burn of sentimentality and pathos as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Michael Apted’s Up series. Over the course of Telemarketers’ two decades, people grow old and sick, some die, but the camera rolls on.

Unfortunately, though, so does this telemarketing scam. Lipman-Stern’s footage starts out as DIY The Office and progresses to DIY 60 Minutes, with the third episode featuring road-trips around the country in the hopes of finding even one executive or government official willing to take action. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen, much to the benefit of the Fraternal Order of the Police and other nonprofits who are more than happy to pocket their 10%. Everything feels broken. But not everyone. After all, a ninth-grade dropout and a heroin addict (people at “the bottom of society,” as Lipman-Stern puts it) created, directed, and starred in their own HBO docu-series that shines a light on the very scam that once paid their bills. Despite facing setback after setback and experiencing firsthand how cruel the world can be, the pair’s cynicism about society never dampens their belief that it can be changed, that they can change it. If there’s hope, people like Sam Lipman-Stern and Patrick J. Pespas are its harbingers. That’s something worth celebrating.

Telemarketers premieres on Max on August 13.

‘Telemarketers’ Review: An HBO Doc From Muckrakers Who Made A Home In The Muck