Escape To Reality: The Man Behind “House of Lies”


WHAT IF I told you that the entire universe of people whose memoirs have been turned into prime-time television series consists of one man?

And that the actor who plays that man recently won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Actor for his performance—and that during his acceptance speech, the actor forgot to thank his alter ego, who wasn’t watching anyway because he was taking a nap?

Stay with me, girls.

Of the eighty-two series now running on the major networks, seven are “reality”and five are news shows, leaving seventy scripted thirty- and sixty-minute examples of what Variety cryptically calls skeins. Four of these are based on modern books and two (Revenge and Elementary) indirectly on old classics (The Count of Monte Cristo and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes).

Still there?

Now, if we enrich our scope to include HBO and Showtime, we turn up four more book-based skeins, namely, Dexter, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Showtime’s sophomore comedy House of Lies, starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell as the world’s most highly sexed management consultants.

And of these eight book-spawned weekly programs, only two—or 2.4 percent, for those in the back—are based on an actual, living human being. One is the long-running Fox drama Bones, inspired by the novels of Kathy Reichs, who’s also a forensic anthropologist.

The other is our old friend House of Lies, which as those gifted enough to speed-read end titles may know, is based on a memoir of the same name by a washed-up ex-TV writer turned management consultant who is . . . well, me.

So while we all may be snowflakes and so on, in the category of people whose fictional selves win Golden Globes for Best Comedy Actor, I am in a class by myself. You’re welcome.

Opposites Attract: Don Cheadle (far left) and Martin Kihn (far right) sandwich the cast and producers of "House of Lies" at the 2012 Television Critics Association tour

Don Cheadle wasn’t supposed to take home the hardware. He admitted as much in his snub, I mean, acceptance speech (“This is a surprise!”). called it “one of the most surprising moments of the 2013 Golden Globes.” Cheadle was a freshman contender against the formidable Alec Baldwin, Matt LeBlanc, Louis C.K., and Jim Parsons, none of whom play a character even remotely based on me.

On the other hand, Cheadle does play a character remotely based on me. His name is Marty Kaan, we’re about the same age, and we both have a flair for loose jargon and that brand of ’80s-era sarcasm that’s either witty or rude, depending on your area code. We are (or were, in my case) sensitive men trapped in an industry that’s a castle of smoke held together with insights usually stolen from somebody else.

I see pieces of my book in the show all the time. The season-two premiere on January 13 had a running bit in which Marty’s team is on speakerphone with a man who sounds important, and it becomes clear none of them know who he is. In consulting, as in life, there’s no upside to offending the rich. The team double-talks around him, trying to extract details. I remember that call very well. It was a lot funnier on television.

Most of the show is pure fiction. I don’t have a cross-dressing son, a drug-addled ex-wife (yet), a rack of fine suits, an Italian racing machine. I don’t routinely put the moves on my clients and co-workers, and if I did I’d be writing this from jail instead of an orange cubicle. Marty Kaan is irresistible to women and has the world by the balls.

There’s another obvious difference between us. That’s right: Cheadle is from Kansas City, and I grew up in Michigan. Oh, and one more. As Cheadle told after his Golden Globes win, “[Martin Kihn] is not like me at all in the outside packaging.” Which is his way of saying I’m white.

Martin Kihn, white man

He also called me “an interesting cat,” which is going on my tombstone. Kaan is the man I would be if I were somebody else, but I don’t identify with him. I watch the show like anybody else: as an outsider. It’s probably better that way. As my wife says, “If they made a show about our real life, nobody would watch.” Not even me.

When my book came out in 2005, other consultants hated it. They fire-bombed Amazon with anonymous one-star reviews and blow-torched me off their holiday lists. But the series—that, they love. It’s rehabilitated me in the profession. From ungrateful quisling to glamorous figurehead in twelve easy episodes.

It’s no secret House of Lies owes everything to Cheadle. Aside from the, ahem, genius source material, he’s the reason it works at all. The man’s in every scene; he sets the tone. His Marty Kaan is a loathsome moral degenerate with the class of Trump, but he’s got an Escalade full of elan.

I’ve met him a few times in my role as consultant to the show. He strikes me as a decent man, vocally liberal, with well-behaved kids and a long-term girlfriend. (He thanked her in his speech, more than once.) In real life we are not so different, except that he is a global superstar beloved by millions and I am a putz whose own dog won’t listen to him sob.

I exaggerate, of course. I’m grateful to producers Jessika Borsiczky and Matthew Carnahan for rescuing my memoir from oblivion and giving it a second life. I’ve been on the set. I have touched Kristen Bell. Despite what you’ve heard, show business is better than real life. Unfortunately, I am still not in show business. I have a day job, in a flat Midwestern town. My book proposals and scripts are rejected with enthusiasm. On New Year’s Eve, I broke my foot at the gym.

Still, I’d rather be me than Marty Kaan. I’m the only guy in the world who can watch Showtime Sunday nights at 10 p.m. and see what I might have become.

About Martin Kihn

Martin Kihn worked at Spy and New York magazines and wrote for many others before becoming head writer of VH1's "Pop-Up Video." He then got an MBA at Columbia and became an overpaid, underqualified management consultant, an experience described in his memoir House of Lies. He is also the author of A$$hole and Bad Dog (A Love Story).
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One Response to Escape To Reality: The Man Behind “House of Lies”

  1. Moe Murph says:

    Very funny!

    Hey, we have a large cabal of McKinsey people working in our building on the tenth floor. My observations:

    a) European tailoring (the rest of us are a bit dumpy-shabby);

    b) Women usually wear spike heels;

    c) Great briefcases (There’s a glamourous blonde who carries one in purple alligator… awesome!);

    d) I think they all come from the back lot of the movie “Gattaca” — they seem genetically superior and permanently youthful, except for a few silverbacks who lead them. At the least, they come from a Diet Coke commercial, but only one that runs in Nordic countries. They are generally pleasant, most will hold the elevator door open for you, but I suspect that they are only humoring us and will eventually turn us all into Soylent Green or urban compost for the roof gardens of their $6 million dollar lofts, where they grow their replacements in pods. Fear them!

    Over and out from Moe Murph!

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