Sam Lipman-Stern was 14, he’d just dropped out of ninth grade, and he needed a job stat. There wasn’t a host of options for an underage kid in New Jersey in terms of gainful employment, and his main interests at the time — skating, graffiti, filming his friends on his camcorder — weren’t necessarily gateways to a paying gig. But his parents told him that if he left high school, he would need to work, full stop. And then Sam heard about the Civic Development Group.
The telemarketing firm, commonly referred to as CDG, had what you might call a loose hiring process. The joke around the office was: Could you properly pronounce the word “benevolent?” OK, great, you start tomorrow! That was it. Sam’s age wasn’t a hindrance. Neither was a criminal record, which is why a lot of ex-cons and a number of shady dudes worked there as well. Pay was $10 an hour, no commission. But in order to keep employees working the phones day and night, the powers that be had a lax policy toward enforcing any sort of rules whatsoever, and they’d make sure that all of the needs a CDG call jockey would have (food, booze, drugs, sex) could be fulfilled on the premises. The fact that the bulk of their clients were state lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police was simply ironic. You could basically do whatever the hell you wanted. You just had to make your sales.
“It felt like you walking straight into a Steinbeck or Kerouac novel,” Lipman-Stern recalls. “It was this place that was just full of these incredible, larger-than-life characters. They were so outrageous, like, you couldn’t make these people up.” For a 14-year-old skate rat whose life consisted of a constant round-robin of “partying, graffiti and telemarketing,” this was not a job. This was fucking heaven.
Welcome to the world that Telemarketers, the new three-part HBO docuseries directed by Lipman-Stern and Adam Bhala Lough that premieres on August 13th, drops you into — a nonstop boiler-room bacchanal populated by drug addicts, drug dealers, punk kids, shit-talkers, hustlers, and a gaggle of middle-aged salesmen that might have been plucked from a community college production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Lipman-Stern had mentioned to one of his managers, a gregarious 400-pound guy named Big Ed, that the anything-goes culture at CDG would make for an unbelievable documentary. Big Ed encouraged the kid to bring in his camcorder, and Sam ended up capturing a lot of wild and crazy shifts. He also found himself gravitating toward Patrick J. Pespas, a living telemarketing legend who could charm any caller out of their cash, even if his heroin habit sometimes caused him to nod off.
Had Lipman-Stern simply captured a bunch of Garden State knuckleheads goofing around and posted the clips on YouTube (which he did), it might have ended there. But Pespas began telling Lipman-Stern about the scam that CDG was pulling: aggressively getting folks to donate to charitable organizations and FOPs, then keeping somewhere around 90 percent of the amount for themselves. The older man wanted to bust their employers and expose the whole racket on film. Sam was game to help. Before the duo could dig too deeply, however, the Federal Trade Commission pulled the plug on CDG and the company was dissolved in 2010. End of story.
Except it wasn’t. Lipman-Stern soon got a call from Big Ed, who told him he’d been hired by another call center that was replicating CDG’s handbook right down to the letter. Not only was this new place still saying they were working on behalf of the police, but the cops now seemed to be directly involved with the con. Worse, this exact same methodology was now being franchised out to call centers all around the country. The CDG employees were essentially canaries in the coal mine. “I worked there for seven years,” Lipman-Stern says. “And I never imagined I was part of the biggest telemarketing scam in American history.”
What the docuseries ends up delivering is something like three different movies in one: a kind of primer on telemarketing as filtered through an anarchic, Animal House-style raunchfest on a late-capitalism bender; a conspiracy thriller that keeps pulling at the CDG thread and finds that the grift runs way, way deeper than anyone would have guessed; and a sort of buddy comedy that finds the present-day Lipman-Stern and Pespas as amateur muckrakers trying to find answers to it all. Imagine an All the President’s Men where Woodward and Bernstein are the world’s most likable jabronis. That’s Telemarketers.
“Sam couldn’t let the idea go — and I totally understood that feeling,” Lough says, as the two directors share a Zoom call. A working filmmaker who’d done docs on everything from white-supremacy groups (Alt-Right: Age of Rage) to Lee “Scratch” Perry (The Upsetter), Lough got a call from Lipman-Stern, who was a distant cousin, in 2019. By this point, Sam and Pat had been trying to get people to talk on camera about this telemarketing “consultant model” and the cops for years, with the former taking a series of film jobs to build up his resume (‘s video team in 2015). Then Pat disappeared. Sam suspected his friend’s addiction had gotten the best of him. He moved to Los Angeles and shot music videos, commercials, foot-fetish clips — whatever paid the bills. Sam told Lough about the footage; he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with it. Would Adam mind checking it out?
“I’ve worked on docs about Lil’ Wayne and Lee Perry,” Lough says. “I moved to L.A. to work with Marilyn Manson for a year on a project that never materialized. They’re all highly charismatic, highly complicated people. And I would put Pat up against any of those guys in terms of a subject, without any hesitation or any exaggeration. The first time I saw footage of Pat telemarketing was akin to the first time I saw Michael Jordan playing basketball. There’s just something about him that rises above the level of the normal human being. And I recognized it right away when Sam first sent me the footage.”
Lough felt there was something there, and they just needed to find the right shape. While Lipman-Stern worked on a treatment for a feature-length doc, Lough reached out to David Gordon Green and his partners at Rough House Pictures, who expressed interest in the project. (They would eventually come on as executive producers.) He also sent some of the rough footage to Benny Safdie, who’d just so happened to have briefly worked as a telemarketer when he was in college in Boston. “Let me be clear, it was not like the CDG experience,” Safdie says, over a separate Zoom call. “It was for a chamber-music nonprofit. I’d totally forgotten that I’d done it, in fact, until I was talking to Adam one day and he said, ‘You know, you have a really good voice for telemarketing, Benny’ — and I went, ‘Wait, I think I did that once!’”
When Safdie took a look at what the filmmaker had sent him, “My jaw dropped. Like, a) I couldn’t believe this scam existed, b) that Sam had managed to film it, and c) that these were the folks who were calling me when I got telemarketing calls?! It was insane.”
Per Lough, the hope was that Benny and Josh would direct the documentary, but because they were starting to prep a new movie with Adam Sandler, they didn’t think they could helm both projects at once. Benny also wasn’t sure that a feature was the best way to present this material. “The idea of a crazy, 90-minute fly-on-the-wall arthouse thing felt too small,” he says. “Most people don’t know how telemarketing works, really. And it was like, what CDG did was horrible, but the Federal Trade Commission took action and everyone moved on. If that’s over, then what’s the investigation?”
When Lough and Lipman-Stern began to fill Safdie in on what happened after that, and how this model had evolved into a billion-dollar scam around the country, he went: OK, there is your docuseries. Benny, Josh and their production company Elara also came on as producers, with Benny helping the filmmakers to shape an arc, blend the early footage and their later investigative material, and suggest where to fill in the gaps with new reporting. Meanwhile, Pat was now clean, sober, out of rehab, and filled with a renewed sense of purpose about the film. By mid-2020, they were ready to hit the road again.
“It was the best shape I’d seen Pat in, in a long time,” Sam says. “You know, he was essentially raised by motorcycle gangs. Pat’s dad was a tattoo artist for the Hell’s Angels. There were drug dealers, murderers, bank robbers working the phones next to us, and he was as street-smart as any of those guys. And he knows how to talk to people. That’s what made him such a good interviewer.”
“And he also has a strong moral center, which is what makes him a great muckraker,” Lough adds. “I mean, Pat is the rare guy who can hang with a gang-banger from Newark and a hedge-fund manager, and be best friends with both of them. But he’s also not an outsider coming in and trying to dig up the dirt. He was the guy doing the dirt! Pat knows this world and he has a desire to make things right because of that. He was our North Star for this.”
Indeed, much of Telemarketers’ sense of righteousness and its comedy come from Pespas, who could be a mensch, a tenacious interrogator and, occasionally, somewhat of a pain in the ass. At one point, the two schedule a key interview down in Florida, they drive to the airport… and Pat decides at the very last minute he can’t get on the plane. (“I had never seen that actually happen in real life,” Lough says. “I thought that only happened in movies.”) Another time, Pat and Sam are staking out a policeman that they want to talk to, and nearly miss him because Pat insists on having lunch at a BBQ place nearby. Both scenes ended up in the series.
Sam would also come close to being a disruptive force at times as well. “There were moments when Sam got a little too Jersey,” Lough exclaims, as Sam cracks up. “Like he’d almost physically fight somebody. And I would pull him aside, and say, ‘Don’t jeopardize this just because you know, somebody mouthed off to you, and now you want to now you want to knock them out Jersey style.”I don’t think I could do that to, like, Danny McBride or David Gordon Green. But Sam is more like a little brother than a cousin to me, so I could really grab him by the collar and stop him from stirring up more shit.”
“We took a very guerrilla approach to the filmmaking,” Lipman-Stern admits. “Especially when we’re in a place with 200 possibly dangerous cops, going up into the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters, and rolling up on some Michael Moore shit. I can get a little crazy, I think. So Adam was good at holding me back from going too far…”
“Although things got a little hairy,” Lough notes. He recalls one instance in which they “were in a place we weren’t supposed to be — somewhere, frankly, I did not want to be — and we were ‘unmasked.’ Shit got really hot. I had to take the footage away on a hard drive and get outta there quick, because let’s just say some folks were very much ready to relieve us of that footage whether we wanted to give it over or not.”
In the end, the three of them survived the experience, and while Telemarketers doesn’t end with all of the guilty parties doing a perp work as justice is served, it does exactly what Sam and Pat set out to do: expose what has become an industry-wide scam that’s still ongoing. “When the 10 o’clock news would do some small item on a telemarketing firm getting busted, Sam would go, ‘They got it wrong again,’” Lough says. “‘They always blame the telemarketer, when there are other, bigger powers at work.’ That’s what we wanted to do: show people that this is a much larger-scale thing than one corrupt call center.”
“If that just means grandmothers are not getting these calls and getting ripped off for their cigarette money, as Pat so eloquently puts it, then I’m happy with that,” Sam says. “It’s bigger, less regulated and way more Wild West in 2023 than it was back then. I’m getting texts every day now from people, saying, ‘I got the call! Holy shit, I got the call!!!’” he laughs. “It’s almost like they’re giving us free promotion.”