This improv comic is crazy enough to film his TV show, TBS's instant classic 10 Items or Less, in a real grocery store. Hilarious antics ensue. Let the Turkey Bowling begin! John Lehr takes questions here.
- Q: 10 Items or Less is part-scripted, part improvised. Can you describe how that works in practice? - Uinterview
- A: Every line you hear is improvised. My partner and I write all the scripts. We write a really detailed outline of one way of telling the story of the episode. We don’t show that script to any of the actors. The crew gets to see, but the actors never see the script. So we know kind of where it could go–our theory is that whatever they come up with will be better than two people in a windowless room on the Sony lot. We really center the show around the actors. It’s the kind of humor, when you are with your friends and one them says something that’s really hilarious, but if you tried to repeat it, it wouldn’t be as funny.
- Q: You are the creator and producer as well as star of the show. Where did you come up with the idea for it? And how were able to sell it? - Uinterview
- A: I had been doing improv for years in Chicago. Ever since I got to L.A., I wanted to figure out a way to put it on the screen. But Curb Your Enthusiasm and Reno 911 really paved the way. Once those shows were up and running, people like me were able to get into to offices and they were more open to it. We took it to Fox and ABC, who were all interested, but Sony actually wanted to make the pilot. We wanted to be at TBS from the get-go because it was their first foray into original programming. I wanted to do a show which would appeal to a broader audience than Curb Your Enthusiasm and the part of the country that I grew up in. To set the show, we were looking for place which could be evenly lit. There was a grocery store strike happening at the time in L.A. when we were shooting the three-minute reel we showed at meetings. We got busted a lot. The people striking thought we were with management, management thought we were with the people striking. We were just trying to make a TV show.
- Q: What’s been the funniest moment you couldn’t show on camera? - Uinterview
- A: There are lots of little funny moments when we were shooting the Turkey Bowling episode. We were throwing actual turkeys down the aisle, so the looks on the customers were really priceless. We were shooting this scene, which was in our second to last episode, where this milkman turns out to be super evil. We were having this scene where the milkman and Lesley were having this really big argument. We are screaming at each other, and this man, who was shopping, totally thought it was real. He thought I was being evil to milk guy and started screaming at me. We played along but finally he got so upset, I had to say, ‘Dude do you see these cameras here?’ There are three cameras and boom mike. This is all fake.’
- Q: Do those people sign releases? - Uinterview
- A: There’s a sort of legal way of doing it. There’s a sign on the front of the door, so when you come in you sort of give permission. We don’t pull people in if they don’t want to be pulled in. Then they sign a contract and we pay them a fee.
- Q: Why did you pick a grocery store? - Uinterview
- A: We wanted an environment that was really sort of mundane. As we break this absurd comedy, the characters play it for real. I’m big fan of Spinal Tap. The knob goes to 11, you know. Technically, it’s really great because it has a lot of locations under one roof. We were sort of shocked that no one had ever set one there before. You can have customers coming in. The grocery store is open for business when we shoot it.
- Q: I have an important question. Did you turkey bowl as a child? - Uinterview
- A: I never turkey bowled before, however I’m really good at it. I highly recommend it, by the way.
- Q: How has the addition of Kim Coles changed the dynamics of the show? - Uinterview
- A: She is fantastic. She was really put in an awkward position because this is a very different way of working. She had worked on big-time network shows with sound stages. And now she’s in a grocery store with a bunch of goofballs and no lines, no script. And, on top of it, she’s really normal. Sometimes, you go on the set of a sitcom, and it’s like they are curing cancer. We’re like, ‘Come on. Let’s be normal and cool with each other.’
- Q: Describe the atmosphere on set? - Uinterview
- A: It’s a crazy situation. There are the shoppers and us. You can’t tell the fake ones from the real ones. People are asking us where the ketchup is, and we’ve been there so long we know where it is. Johnny the manager and I are friends. Any time you get tired, all you have to do is look at the people who are actually working. It’s really sort of a pleasantly absurd environment.
- Q: You come from a background as a monologuist. How is it different working on a TV show and collaborating with a team of comedians? - Uinterview
- A: The thing that was surprising for me is how much I like the producing side. It was a necessity for me to do to get the thing off the ground. I love figuring how to make this crew of 100 be the most efficient they can be, so we can get more comedy on the screen.
- Q: Why can’t the big networks make funny comedies any more? - Uinterview
- A: There are obviously major changes that have to happen in the business model, which are beyond my understanding. But there are a lot of people involved in those network shows. Then you end up with the easiest joke–the joke that everybody gets–it really takes the personality out of it. It’s very difficult to push back against that when you have one or two executive producers and the money people in the room. They are trying to help it, but they are business majors. If the show crashes, they are gong to get fired. Somehow, these writers have gotten more power than they should have–they worked their way up and suddenly they are in charge of 100 people.
- Q: You also played the Geico Caveman before it became cool. Was that a career highlight for you? - Uinterview
- A: I love it, man. First, I made a lot of money. I have two young kids, and it’s saved my butt. They let me improvise. I’m one of the most famous characters on the air, but am totally unrecognizable. There’s something about commercials that they are just less precious about it–‘Oh we are just selling car insurance here.’ The makeup is a drag–it takes three hours to put on and an hour to take off. But it’s better than a real job!
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