Donny Deutsch has never taken an acting lesson in his life and never studied improv or theater. Even so, he had two other things that served him well in his quest to star in his own TV show: a dream and $175,000 to fund his own trial episode.
Tonight, at 10:30 p.m., his new comedy,”Donny,” will debut on USA. Can anyone follow in his footsteps?
Deutsch, known in New York circles for the years he spent at the helm of an ad agency that bears his surname, thinks he has trained long and hard for his new role for decades. He transformed the agency into a powerhouse by always talking up its abilities no matter what sorts of naysayers he drew. A business book he wrote is titled “Often Wrong, Never In Doubt.” And his success at positioning his ad firm has given him plenty of practice for a TV berth, he explained: “After 25 years of being CEO of a major ad agency, it’s not that you are acting, it’s that you are playing a role – to motivate people, to take on a certain persona with clients.”
In “Donny,” Deutsch plays what he called “a more idiotic, more detached, bigger buffoon version of myself – which is hard to do, but I did it.”
It’s a part he has practiced for years: The 57-year-old TV personality rose to fame helping to transform Deutsch, once a small print-advertising boutique founded by his father, David, into a rule-breaking, swaggering ad firm that he sold to marketing-services holding company Interpublic Group in 2000 in a deal valued at around $265 million. Among the company’s achievements were creating the first TV ad to feature a same-sex couple and reviving the “career” of Wendy, the Snapple Lady. During his tenure, Deutsch, the executive, was blunt and boastful – not shy about taking off his shirt to show off his physique and not afraid to call out an advertising client for bad behavior. When Burger King flipped ad agencies for the fifth time in four years, Deutsch urged others to shun the business. “Ninety-five percent of clients are wonderful and respect agencies, but there are 5% that are broken business models and throw agencies under the bus,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2004. “I literally would not take their call. Other agencies have got to start thinking that way.”
Deutsch “challenged convention and he was very vocal about it,” said Linda Sawyer, a longtime Deutsch confidante who made sure Deutsch’s braggadocio translated into business during his ad-agency days and who is now chairman of the agency. “He didn’t play by the rules. Sometimes that doesn’t work and sometimes it’s a recipe for tremendous success.”
Deutsch isn’t the only unlikely candidate for TV stardom making a stab at it. A phalanx of YouTube stars and Vine personalities are now chomping at the bit for greater things. Some are finding them: Actress Grace Helbig moved from vlogs and YouTube antics to hosting a show on E! and starring in an ad campaign from Marriott. Comedienne Rachel Bloom once took to YouTube with a ribald tune about author Ray Bradbury. Now she holds forth in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a fish-out-of-water comedic drama with musical elements that has drawn notice on the CW.
As befits its star’s personality, “Donny” does not fit into the usual TV-show categories. It’s a comedy with tart notes, something in the vein of Larry David’s crotchety HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Deutsch plays a talk-show host whose life is governed by the women around him and who often trips on his own ego as he tries to negotiate romance, family and work.
The germ of the idea came to Deutsch while making appearances as a commentator on shows like “Morning Joe” or “Today.” Sometimes, people who came on the shows were decidedly less likable off camera. So he and his production partners noodled over the idea of him playing a talk-show host whose self-involvement often gets him into trouble. As in his real life, a range of strong women – he cites everyone from Sawyer to his daughters to his assistants to his mother – keep him from veering off the rails. To drive it all home, he said, “I have to be the butt of the joke.”
Deutsch has appeared in some prominent TV spots. He hosted a primetime show, “The Big Idea,” on CNBC for more than four years, and was spotted on CNN for a brief moment as a primetime host. He said he even turned down a chance to appear on the hit series “Shark Tank” because he wanted to broaden beyond being seen as a snappy entrepreneur. He wanted more. “I had in advertising some tremendous success.I won that game. In television, I only had moderate success,” he confided, “At 57 years old, no one was grooming me to take over for Matt Lauer.”
So he took matters into his own hands and made what he called a “bet” on himself, paying for an initial presentation with his own cash. Much of “Donny” is filmed inside his own Manhattan townhouse. “Look, I’m very fortunate. I monetized a business, and if you can’t use your money to go after your dream, what the f— are you doing?” he asked.
He is also using his ad-agency experience to test new models. In each episode of “Donny,” the lead character will “break” from the action to hawk actual products as part of in-show advertising. If the series is picked up beyond its initial six-episode run, Deutsch hopes to work more closely with potential sponsors and even collaborate with them well in advance so their appearances in the program dovetail seamlessly.
Deutsch may not fit into every TV opportunity, but he’s trying to make the most of the ones he can catch: “If I get cast to be a lawyer in ‘SVU,’ I don’t know how good a job I’d do, but planning a more buffoonish version of myself? I don’t find that difficult to do.” As the barriers to entry to TV content continue to change, perhaps other entrepreneurs like Deutsch will forge their own paths to the screen.