How House of Lies is Addictive

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How House of Lies is Addictive

By Sam Lansky 02/16/12

The man behind this season's comedy breakout hit, House of Lies, speaks out about his own addiction and recovery.

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The House of Lies cast Photo via

Martin Kihn has an unusual career trajectory, to say the least: educated at Yale, Kihn worked for MTV as the head writer for Pop-Up Video, garnering an Emmy nomination in the process; then he decided to quit television and head to business school at Columbia, where he earned an MBA and began working as a management consultant. His four years in that industry were memorialized in the book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, and his follow-up stunt memoir, A$$hole: How I Got Rich & Happy By Not Giving a Damn About Anyone.

But the past year has seen Kihn moving in new directions, publishing a more earnest literary work, Bad Dog: A Love Story, about his experiences working the 12 steps while training his dog through the 10 steps of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program; simultaneously, his book House of Lies was adapted into a comedy for Showtime, which premiered on January 8, 2012. The show, which stars Don Cheadle as a con artist named, well, Marty Kahn, and Kristen Bell as his charmingly self-effacing right-hand woman Jeannie, has just been picked up for a second season, which will begin filming later this year. Kihn also continues to work as a consultant for an online marketing agency based in Minneapolis—doing, he says, “digital market analytics optimization and measurement.” All in all, a delicate juggling act of professional commitments, both right and left-brain. 

Kaan has nearly five years sober but the book from which House of Lies is adapted doesn’t include much material about his debauched past. 

Fortunately for Kihn, his reputation as a consultant remains unsullied where it counts. “Ironically, I am a consultant on the show,” Kihn says of his involvement with House of Lies. As a whole, the show is slick, smart, and savvy, a mile-a-minute comedy packed with pop references and lewd banter—a surprisingly sexy look at an industry viewers might expect to be dull, with several characters who demonstrate addictive tendencies. Marty’s ex-wife, Monica (played venomously by Dawn Olivieri), is an obvious drug addict; the opening sequence of the pilot features Marty and Monica waking up together after a wild night of partying. 

“How many pills did you have last night, anyway?” Marty asks. 

“Which flavor?” Monica responds. 

Later, he spits at her, “You’re a sociopath and an addict and I can’t even look at you right now.”

Kaan, meanwhile, has nearly five years sober after a dark chapter of alcoholism in his own life, but the book from which House of Lies is adapted doesn’t include much material about his debauched past. That, he says, was invented by the show’s creators—it just happened to mirror his past.

“It’s quite a bit different from the book,” he says. “The book is about the office. It’s a business book—a satire, obviously—but it all pretty much takes place in an office or traveling. The show, though, has a whole dimension of it that’s the personal life of Marty Kaan—who’s loosely based on me. But his cross-dressing son, his pill-popping ex-wife—all of that was made up for the show.” In his real life, Kihn is married to singer-songwriter Julia Douglass, a far cry from the promiscuous divorcé of his fictional counterpart. But, he says, his input on the personal storylines of the show’s characters wasn’t requested. “The writers and the creator asked me for a lot of feedback on the work part, the office part, the language they use, and some business details, but the personal stuff was out of scope. They did not ask for or welcome my comments.”

What the book and the show share, though, is a dry cynicism, a distrust about the world of management consulting and its gluttonies. “A general feeling of disgruntlement, physical pain, mental anguish—all of that’s wrapped up in there,” Kuhn says of his book. “It’s a big howl of pain against the industry.” But now, as a consultant both on House of Lies and in the world of digital marketing, Kuhn seems to have warmed to that world. “I couldn’t write that book now,” he says. “I don’t feel that negatively about anything. I feel more balanced about my life.”

If the real-life Martin Kihn is balanced, the fictional Marty Kaan is not; it’s hard to watch House of Lies and not see Marty as a sex addict on a spiral of destruction. He seems motivated entirely by pleasure seeking; surrounded by sybarites, Kaan thinks with his libido, even to the detriment of his business dealings. Kihn says that’s not rooted in autobiography. “The creator, Matt Carnahan, put that element in there,” he says. “Certainly, the Marty Kaan character is obsessive. While not an alcoholic, he has a lot of issues—some kind of sex addiction, which is part of the show. I do know for a fact that they’ll bring that to the forefront later on. By the end of the season, there’s a theme there. His ex-wife [Monica] is a full-blown addict, and her addiction becomes part of the family dynamic.”

And in the actual world of management consulting, a character like Monica—herself a high-powered consultant—probably wouldn’t survive. “There definitely were addicts,” Kihn says. “But they don’t last. It requires a lot of physical stamina to hold up, and there’s a lot of client-facing activity, so it’s very hard to get away with it. Those people would be fired. They wouldn’t make it.” Kihn didn’t get sober until after he’d already left management consulting, but he says that career track would likely prove as challenging for a recovering addict as it would for an active one. “I hit bottom during the year after I left the industry and could only get sober with a routine that involved no travel,” he says. “I needed a home base, a home meeting, a steady job, clear hours, no travel. I doubt I could have got sober if I'd stayed in consulting.”

And Kihn himself is glad for that break between fiction and reality, between his life and the show that seeks to depict it, however loosely. About his TV counterpart’s lady killing ways, he admits, “That’s clearly the fictional Marty, not the real Marty. It’s related to power, and he’s amoral. He’s tortured. He is an addictive personality, if that’s a term. And those people can be good drama. I wouldn’t want to be him, but he’s fun to watch from the outside.”

Sam Lansky is a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about Britney Spears and dating in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky

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