This is the driving question behind the new Showtime original television series Hou$e of Lie$, a dramedy about a team of management consultants taking on high-powered executives and duping them into paying millions for a service they never asked for. The lead character, Marty Kaan (played by Don Cheadle), is the ringmaster of the consulting circus, breaking the fourth wall and giving viewers an inside look at the absurdity of his personal and professional life.
It would be a fantastic -- almost unbelievable -- concept for a show, if it wasn't real.
But it's very real, and is inspired by the book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, written by the real Martin Kihn, who just happens to now take up residence right here in the Twin Cities.
A former management consultant, Kihn wrote the book while he was still very much a part of the industry, leading to some burned bridges and a change in careers. With the spotlight once again thrust in his direction, Kihn took a few minutes to discuss the book, his feelings on the TV show, and why he left the industry that inspired the series.
First question: How often do you get mistaken for Don Cheadle?
[Laughs] Never. I actually went out to Los Angeles for the upfronts [Hollywood slang for events where networks introduce their new program lineups], and they actually had me and him onstage at the same time. We were like yin and yang up there; just total opposites.
Now that Hou$e of Lie$ has been airing for a few weeks, are you satisfied with how they've taken your book and adapted it for television?
I think it's important to point out that the show itself is a farce. My book started as a word list. I would write down all of these words that consultants would use that sounded strange and try to explain them. When you see the Marty Kaan character breaking the fourth wall, that's a cue taken directly from the book. So in that sense it's very similar. The personal elements of the characters and their lives, however, are all fiction. The office portions of the show are very much from the consulting world, but the character Cheadle plays isn't me. Still, I love watching the show, and I get to enjoy the personal elements just like any other viewer.
When you watch the show and it does focus on those specific workplace situations, does it ever take you back and put you in the moment again?
Yes, and not in a good way. Those were extremely stressful situations, and I spent four years in that world dealing with them. When I watch some of the scenes, I get very uncomfortable thinking about it and remembering what that felt like.
Getting to the book, when you first released it I'm assuming you knew you were burning bridges, right? What was the feedback like?
I anticipated that I would likely have to quit once the book came out. I mean, a lot of the other consultants in my company hated it, which I expected, but I was still shocked at the level of vitriol I received. I think a lot of it was that they felt like I had betrayed them. It's funny though, because now that the show is out some of my other former colleagues have reached out and said they really enjoy it.
Why do you think that is?
It makes the industry seem sexy. You see the characters and they're traveling all the time, making tons of money; they look like big shots.
A lot of the press around the show focuses on the idea that the characters are kind of sticking it to the one percent. Do you feel like your story has taken on a new focus with the events of the past few years in our country?
When I first wrote the book, no one really knew anything about what management consultants did or who we were. Then Enron came along and completely changed the game. McKinsey [a global management consulting agency where Enron's CEO was once a partner] became an organization that people were suddenly familiar with, and management consultants were more high-profile. Now, I think you're seeing management consultants becoming more well-known thanks to Mitt Romney, who was once a consultant himself. I hear a lot of that in him when he speaks, which is to say he's a very slick character.
Now that your book is experiencing a second resurgence as a result of the show, do you plan to keep writing? What's the plan for the future?
I'm a consultant on the show right now, and if it gets picked up for another season then I'd like to work on incorporating more of the consulting work into the story for next year [note: Showtime announced that the show was renewed for a second season on February 1]. I also wrote a book about my dog I'd like to develop into a TV series. Really, I just want to keep working in this same field and in the entertainment industry.
What's been the best part of seeing your book turned into a TV show?
Honestly, I think a lot of people don't know that the show is based on a book at all, so hopefully the TV show will help people to learn that the book actually exists and that the experiences that the series is based on were real.