Donny Deutsch, who first made a name for himself—as well as a fortune—in the advertising business and remains chairman emeritus of Deutsch Inc., went on to become a television personality, hosting The Big Idea on CNBC, and regularly appearing on programs like NBC’s Today and MSNBC’s Morning Joe to comment on everything from media to politics. But Deutsch got to a point where he felt like he had gotten as far as he was going to get in the news and information end of television. It was time for a change.
“I wasn’t going to be the next Matt Lauer. I came to this very late,” says Deutsch, who is 57. “I’m also kind of a polarizing figure, and I said, ‘So what’s the next step for me in television?’ “
After kicking around the idea of creating his own scripted series for a while, Deutsch decided to make it happen. Donny!, premiering on USA Network November 10, has him playing a successful but clueless talk show host with a big ego. (“I’m playing a more idiotic version of myself,” Deutsch says.) In the first couple of episodes, we see the fictional Donny navigating the world of sexting and seeking an age-appropriate woman to date.
Here, Deutsch, who cocreated Donny! with Angie Day, talks to Co.Create about how he got a TV series starring himself on the air by working around his weakness—he’s not a trained actor—and capitalizing on his experience in the ad business.
Lucky for Deutsch, he has tons of money and was able to finance the production of a television pilot, so he walked into a meeting with USA Network with a 20-minute show for executives to view. He went to the trouble of shooting a pilot—his Manhattan townhouse is also the home to the fictional Donny—because he knew that there wasn’t a network that would put up the cash to produce a pilot for a scripted series starring, well, him. “They would have laughed at me even if I had a script that was pretty good, and I wouldn’t blame them. So I knew I had to show them, put my money where my mouth is,” Deutsch says. “I’ve never gone wrong investing in myself, and I was thrilled to do it.”
“Look, I am not an actor. I’m not going to be able to effectively read lines. That’s not who I am,” Deutsch says.
So when he and Donny! cocreator Day wrote the show, they created a process that allowed for lots of improv. Basically, they would work out the beats of an episode and write the simplest of scripts. Then they would call in the actors and allow everyone to improv their way through each scene, using the script as a guide. The script would then be rewritten incorporating the best lines and workshopped again. There was also flexibility at the shoot—the actors would work off the script, but there was room for additional ad-libbing, which made the process of performing more natural for someone like Deutsch, who is used to speaking off the cuff. “It was a very interesting, fun, organic process that, I think, played to my strengths and minimized my weaknesses,” Deutsch says.
It’s an unusual way to work in television. “It was very deconstructed, and it wasn’t done in a traditional way,” Deutsch acknowledges, “and USA really nurtured that.”
Deutsch knew he had to be the butt of every joke on the show, and he is. “The only reason I was able to pull this off is because I was playing a version of myself that I created, and I was very willing to make fun of myself. If you’re going to do something like this, you’ve got to let it all hang out. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m going to kind of look like an idiot sometimes, and I’m going to be taking my shirt off and looking like a goofball and having Christie Brinkley make fun of my pubic grooming,” Deutsch says, referring to an episode in which Brinkley is shocked by his character’s man bush.
Deutsch has made it a habit of working with women. When he was building Deutsch Inc., most of his senior partners were female, a rarity in advertising even now. So it’s no surprise to see his character working with lots of bright women, including a savvy talk show producer, Pam, who is based on Deutsch’s real-life publicist Stephanie Jones. “Stephanie’s kind of like a younger sister, and she just beats the shit out of me. That’s our relationship, and she was the prototype for the character,” Deutsch says.
Emily Tarver plays the role and has a natural chemistry with Deutsch. “She was just so perfect to the point where USA said we’re doing the show also contingent on her [being in it],” Deutsch says.
It’s not uncommon to see product placement on scripted shows, but Donny! has Deutsch’s character interrupting scenes to full-on testimonials for products like Hak’s BBQ Sauce and Purity vodka. “One of the things I love about the show is it’s very emblematic of who we are today. It’s a real blurring of entertainment and news and information and reality and advertising,” Deutsch says.
The ads within the show are also a nod to his background in advertising. “I’m doing this show now, and it’s this funny comedy, but at my core, I’m still an ad guy. At the same time, it’s a wonderful business opportunity. I really believe the key to integration going forward is to embrace it. It’s not about just putting a Coke bottle on a table and working around it.”