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Dan Webster reviews "Telemarketers"

Still of Sam Lipman-Stern in documentary miniseries Telemarketers (2023).
Telemarketers, All Facts/Elara Pictures/Rough House Pictures/HBO, 2023.
Still of Sam Lipman-Stern in documentary mini-series Telemarketers (2023).


Documentary filmmaking has long been a realm dominated by directors of immense talent. From Frederick Wiseman to Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris to Werner Herzog (and numerous others), the greatest of those who seek to capture a sense of real life represent the very best of cinema itself.

Into this august realm of filmmaking lurch Sam Lipman-Stern and Pat Pespas, a pair of guys who have more in common with your typical Adam Sandler character than anyone mentioned above. But courtesy of the three-part HBO Max series Telemarketers, the two emerge as bona-fide investigative journalists—even if those final two words should be set off with quote marks.

And that’s no joke, even if much of what they do—particularly in the first episode—resembles a 1980s farce such as Caddyshack. It was in 2001 that Lipman-Stern, then a teenager, began working for the New Jersey-based telemarketing company Civic Development Group (or CDG). He soon befriended a fellow employee, this being Pespas, and began videotaping the hijinks that were going on at the office, which was nothing less than a drug-induced circus. He then started posting the footage on YouTube.

In any normal company, that would almost certainly have resulted in dismissal, if not criminal charges. But as both Lipman-Stern and Pespas claim, CDG was nothing if not abnormal. As long as the callers met their daily quotas, they were free to do pretty much anything they wanted. And Pespas, in particular, was great at meeting his quotas—when of course he, a heroin addict, wasn’t nodding off mid-pitch.

Then an idea was born. After Pespas complained that CDG was keeping most of the money, leaving little to go to the charities the callers were supposedly representing, the two decided to expose the whole racket. And they, in their bumbling Keystone Kops way of doing things, began investigating.

Yet it’s symbolic of just how incompetent the two were that it took years for the project to come to fruition. Besides the fact that neither knew what he was doing, other than merely pointing the camera at someone—usually each other—Pespas at one point simply disappeared, leaving Lipman-Stern holding on to a lot of footage but with no real idea of what to do with it.

Ultimately, though, he connected with a cousin—Adam Bhala Lough, who is listed along with Lipman-Stern as co-director—and gradually they were able to attract help from people in the industry. Among the series’ many producers you’ll find the names of filmmakers such as Josh and Bennie Safdie, David Gordon Green and even the comic actor Danny McBride. Ultimately, after several years—during which Pespas did finally reappear—the two were able to continue their Billy Madison-type investigation and transform their material into the three-part HBO Max series.

Despite their fumbling manner, our two investigators—again, imagine that word in quotations—were actually able to bring attention to a serious issue. The owners of CDG have been shut down more than once and forced to pay fines, some substantial but far less than the millions they managed to pocket. They would just shift to another location and begin again—refining their operations to something less circus-like but still depending largely on callers, many with prison records, who couldn’t find work anywhere else.

If that weren’t bad enough, the connection between CDG and the Fraternal Order of Police (or FOP)—one of two major police unions—is perhaps the film’s most shocking revelation. While CDG would keep 90 percent of the money raised, very little—if any—of the 10 percent that did go to the various state FOP chapters ended up in the hands of the disabled cops or police widows in whose name the funds were being raised in the first place.

In one revealing scene, when Pespas asks Richard Blumenthal, the senior U.S. senator from Connecticut, why nothing is being done about such unethical/illegal activity, Blumenthal dissembles, blaming federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission. It’s clear that no one in power, especially not any politician, wants to take on the police.

Telemarketers may be built around a couple of comic characters, but that scene evokes no laughs whatsoever.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be discussing two documentary streaming options, both of which explore some aspect of real life that most of the rest of us will find somewhat bizarre. The first is the three-part series “Telemarketers,” while the second is a feature film titled “A Life on the Farm.”