In addition to being one of the Geico cavemen, Kansas-born John Lehr writes, produces, and stars in TBS’ partially improvised sitcom 10 Items Or Less, a show that centers on a family-owned Ohio supermarket. But in the ’90s, before he snagged a series of sitcom stints (Jesse, Friends) and bit parts in Noah Baumbach’s early films (1997’s Highball, 1995’s Kicking And Screaming), Lehr honed his improv chops at Northwestern University and performed an off-Broadway one-man show that showcased his talent for monologues. Just before the second season of 10 Items premièred on TBS, The A.V. Club spoke to Lehr about creating an improvised TV show and being a self-loathing loser.
The A.V. Club: What inspired 10 Items Or Less?
John Lehr: Ever since I saw Spinal Tap, I wanted to shoot improv and figure out a way to do that, in my style. I did a pilot for FOX that I produced and didn’t go, and I hooked up with Nancy Hower, who is the director of 10 Items. She cast me in a movie called Memron, which is this obscure film that makes fun of the Enron scandal, and won the [independent filmmakers] Slamdance Festival. Then, because of my experience in producing and hers in directing, we were able to go to Sony and pitch the show. We wanted to do a workplace comedy and [a grocery store] is an easy way to get lots of different people involved and justify this crazy family. We were looking for a place that was mundane, something really basic, so we could do crazy stuff within it. There was a grocer’s strike and Nancy suggested it, and now we can’t believe that no one has done that before. It just seemed like an obvious place to do a sitcom.
AVC: What inspired the character of Leslie, the devoted grocery-store manager?
JL: [Laughs.] I don’t know—I’m not really an actor. I don’t prepare. I don’t really warm up. I think my fellow castmates are much more of actors. If you asked them their character’s favorite color they would know. I just kind of start talking, and Leslie just—my mother says he’s like my father. I’m just fascinated with losers, and I’m a terribly insecure person, very self-loathing. Leslie is just kind of how I see myself, trying to get along in the world and constantly fucking up. I just love losers. And I love the idea of a lead in a show that is not entirely likeable. But not in a way, like on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he’s a dick. In fact, Leslie’s crew loves him, and viewers like him, which kind of surprised us. TBS really wanted him to be lovable and I was like, “Oh Jesus, lovable?” But I kind of like that now because I get to go places with him, like relationships, things I never thought would be possible because the character is such a nutjob.
AVC: How do you decide when to focus on writing, producing, or acting?
JL: Sounds impressive doesn’t it? I used to be so much about “I’m going to do this and I’m going to make it happen no matter what.” And I’ve become much more successful with just following what’s in my life. Rather than feeling like I’m in charge, I’m kind of letting the things around me dictate a bit more, which is a lot mellower and more comfortable.
AVC: The actors on 10 Items are given a premise, but they have to make up all their lines. What kind of challenges do you face when you don’t know how the show is going to end?
JL: A lot. We shoot a ton, about four or five takes per scene. But they’re like, 20 minutes long, so it’s about 30 hours per episode, so we really shoot something like a reality show. Roll and roll and roll. I know what the script is because I wrote it, and Nancy knows, so the two of us are kind of guided, but really more than anything we’re looking to what the actors will bring to it. Our feeling is that [what] they have is going to be so much more interesting than what we came up with. So, we’re highly adaptable and then we get in the edit room and just try to make sense of it. It’s a nightmare.
AVC: The episode where Richard the cashier and your character role-play so Leslie can practice hitting on women particularly stands out.
JL: It’s a pure example of something you’d never come up with in a scripted show. I love how sweet it is that Leslie falls in love with Richard for a moment. That scene inspired an entire episode from the next season, where Leslie is going to doubt whether he is straight or gay. And he and Richard go on a date, basically. It’s awesome. That’s my favorite episode from the next season—it’s called “First Time.” It starts out with [customer-service representative] Ingrid, the blonde, who decides she’s going to lose her virginity, and at the same time Leslie thinks he might be gay.