Stream it or skip it: “Telemarketers” on HBO, where two self-confessed “dirtbags” expose the benefit telemarketing frenzy

Directed by Sam Lipman-Stern and Adam Bhala Lough, Telemarketers is a three-part documentary about how Lipman-Stern, along with friend and colleague Patrick J. Pespas, blew up all the charity telemarketing hype, especially after they both worked had for years at a New Jersey-based company called the Civil Development Group (CDG).

opening shot: 2010. A shirtless Sam Lipman star sits on his bed and says, “I want to do a documentary about CDG. I've thought about it since I was a friggin' little kid.”

The essentials: By his own admission, Lipman-Stern is a “scumbag”; He dropped out of school when he was 14 and just wanted to mark buildings and skate with his dirty friends all day, but his parents wanted him to find a job. So he finds work at CDG, which in 2001 paid $10 an hour for telemarketers with no experience required or background checks.

CDG had become the largest telemarketer, raising money on behalf of organizations like the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police and similar charities. What they would do is pay the organization to handle their fundraising duties, provide scripts for the telemarketers to say and rebuttals to virtually every caller objection, and end up taking 90% of what is raised money.

We see many videos from the mid to late 2000s of Lipman-Stern and others documenting what one telemarketer at CDG called “going to the backyard BBQ every day.” The company recruited openly through recruitment agencies and hired many people who could not find work elsewhere. They didn't care what was going on in the office as long as their telemarketers set their sales goals. So there was drug trafficking and taking, selling sexual favors in restrooms… one guy was even selling pit bull puppies in the office.

Lipman-Stern and Pespas became fast friends when the former joined CDG. The outspoken Pespas was often high on heroin or something else, but was always one of the company's top sellers. He somehow managed to get people to part with their $10 here and $25 there, even though he sucked at it. But Pespas always knew what a scam CDG was doing; In fact, they were fined in the late 1990s for posing as police officers at fundraisers.

In 2010, after CDG changed its sales model and had its telemarketers claim that they belonged to FOP organizations and that 100% of the money would go to those FOPs, the Federal Trade Commission finally shut them down. But CDG provided the example for other companies to follow, and Lipman-Stern and Pespas decided to publicize the entire industry.

Photo: HBO

What shows will it remind you of? telemarketer definitely has the somewhat superficial feel of documentaries like Pepsi, where's my jet? It's no coincidence that Danny McBride is one of the series' executive producers.

Our opinion: We live not far from CDG's headquarters, and the Jerseyness of it all runs throughout the first episode of telemarketer. Pat Pespas is exactly the kind of character that almost everyone living in New Jersey knows well: Smart but messed up, wears his Giants jacket in the winter, and postulates not-so-crazy theories about politics and life between the grass and the gulp Beer.

Lipman-Stern and Lough manage to bring that feeling to the big screen between the extensive footage filmed at the CDG offices and the interviews Lipman-Stern and Pespas conduct with their former CDG colleagues. They all admit how screwed things up there were, but seem to remember those salad days as if they were at some sort of ex-con summer camp, where they did bullpen chair races and watched YouTube videos featuring Lipman Stern and others had recorded people sleeping at work, getting high, and other things you'd never see in a regular office.

It is interesting that only the first episode deals with the chaotic processes at CDG; The second and third episodes document how Lipman-Stern and Pespas remained friends after CDG's closure and decided to reveal how other companies adopted and continued with CDG's model.

These two episodes are about both the friendship between the two, who are probably around 20 years apart in age, and how they bonded, as well as the scandals they uncovered. However, given what a character Pespas is, we were prepared to see a lot more of him by the end of the first episode, especially given that his sense of right and wrong was so strong despite Lipman's drug-induced haze cycles – Stern ushered him in at work.

gender and skin: There's a scene where a woman in a toilet stall starts to unbuckle a man's belt, but that's about it.

farewell shot: Lipman-Stern calls with a changed voice. The person on the phone says the most dangerous people to worry about in uncovering the charity scam aren't CDG's owners as we see flashing police lights.

sleeper star: Pat's wife Sue has no problem throwing in her own comment, while Lipman-Stern speaks to Pat in archival footage. She also has no problem yelling at him how many hot dogs he wants during the interview.

Most pilot y lines: None that we could find.

Our appeal: STREAM IT. telemarketer made us both laugh and outraged. We've been excited to see where Lipman-Stern and Pespas are going with their mission to uncover all charity fundraising businesses.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn't fool himself: He's a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon,, VanityFair.comFast Company and elsewhere.

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