Television Writer, Producer, Performer and Geico Caveman, John Lehr
John Lehr is a comedic writer, monologist and performer working in television, film and theater in Los Angeles and New York. John has written a number of projects--recently creating two pilots and selling one to network and the other to cable. As an actor, John has appeared in numerous television series and feature films. His critically acclaimed monologues have had sold out runs in LA and New York. He recently wrapped his off-Broadway one-man show "The Lehr Curse."
John's writing career began with the pilot script "Electronic Highway" (Brandon Tartikoff, Producer, Viacom) and the series "News Weasels" (E!). John co-wrote and starred in the feature film "Humanoid" (David Schwimmer, Producer). John and his wife Jennifer optioned the half-hour "Monogamy American Style" to 20th Century Fox and created and hosted "Garage Sale," a pilot for ABC Family. In 2003, John created, starred and executive produced the scripted/improvised pilot for FBC entitled "Empyrean Way." In 2004, NBC purchased John's sitcom "Nature/Nurture" for David Schwimmer's Dark Harbor Stories. In 2005, John shot his pilot, "10 Items or Less" (which he Created, Executive Produced and Starred in) for Sony Pictures Television and TBS. He is also writing and Executive Producing the pilot script "Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex" with his wife, Jennifer, and Executive Producer Peter Mehlman for Warner Brothers Television.
As an actor, John played Christina Applegate's brother on NBC's "Jesse" and hosted ABC's reality show "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here." Other TV credits include "Oliver Beene" (FOX) "Once & Again" (ABC), "Friends" (NBC) and others. John's film credits include "The Sweetest Thing", "Kicking and Screaming", "Mr. Jealousy", "Highball" and others. John is a critically acclaimed improvisational performer having worked at the Organic Theater and Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, The Montreal Comedy Festival, Chicago Improvisational Festival and multiple venues in Los Angeles and New York. In 2003, John starred in and Associate Produced "Memron"-- an entirely improvised film that won the audience choice award at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival. Currently John is starring and executive producing '10 Items or Less' - a half-hour Sony pilot for TBS.
John currently lives in Los Angeles California with his wife Jennifer and his seven month old daughter, Jules.
John is a seasoned improvisational actor, which means that he has mastered the art of being able to act authentically under imaginary circumstances without a script and without knowing what he or his fellow actors might do or say next. Not quite as easy as he makes it look...He has worked hard and his hard work is definitely paying off.
We talked about a lot of things and the more we talked the more interested I became in what he had to say. John possesses that rare quality of being serious about what he does without taking himself too seriously in the process, which is obviously working out for him because he is really very funny.
DR: Tell me about your life and about your work.
JL: I grew up in Kansas.
In Kansas you do not go into theater or acting, really. In fact, most of my family refers to what I do as "draaa-mer".
I was in speech class; forensics. You remember the class that was like debate competition? That it is called forensics, when forensics is the same word that is used to describe "exploring dead people" is odd to me. Anyway, we had an event called Improvised Duet Acting where you and your partner would draw a topic, then you would have a few minutes to prepare a topic and then you had a few more minutes to prepare something. After that you basically just improvised for judges.
I loved it!!
I couldn't believe that you could make stuff up and that people would watch it!
I went to Northwestern University in Chicago to be a teacher. Chicago is so big with improv and Northwestern had an improv show. I auditioned and got into that. That really sort of changed me or, ruined me, depending on which way you look at it.
It took me awhile to learn this, but there was absolutely no way for anyone to make a living doing improve. It's fun but it doesn't pay - AT ALL!
I ended up doing bar gigs in Chicago which was just brutal with people yelling things like
"You suck! Get off the stage... "
Really hard core but, I learned a lot.
Then I did this super fast improv show in Chicago and a talent scout at Fox heard about it and flew out to Chicago to see it and really liked it. He asked us if we would go to LA and do a showcase. I did that and became like "flavor of the month" out here and then I basically parlayed that into being a character actor and writing.
I made my living for a few years doing stints on independent movies and TV shows. I wrote a lot too and sold some scripts. Between the two I was able to make a living. But, my dream was always to figure out a way to get back to improv. With the advent of Curb Your Enthusiasm things opened up for improv.
I ended up doing a movie called Memron, which made fun of the Enron scandal. It is actually really good and running on Showtime now. The director, Nancy Hower, who is one of my partners and an executive producer on Ten Items or Less, she is just this power house woman director who shot Memron single-handedly for $10,000. Now when I say single-handedly I mean that she would hold the boom mike and the camera at the same time. Just sheer force got the film done and we just fell in love with each other and the way that we work.
On the back end of making Memron, Nancy brought in her friend Robert Hickey who is a producer and a writer... with improve most of the writing ends up happening in the editing room... so when Memron won an award at Slamdance Film Festival, that really gave us a foot in to be able to pitch something else. We decided to pitch 10 Items or Less. We sold it to SONY and then shopped it to Networks and then TBS bought it and so -
Here we are!
10 Items Or Less
In 10 Items or Less, Lehr plays Leslie Pool, who returns to his native Ohio to run the Green & Grains grocery store he has just inherited from his father. His somewhat dysfunctional staff includes Carl (Robert Clendenin – That '70s Show), the sweet, doofus stockboy who serves as Leslie's sidekick; Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama – ER), the straight-talking dominant force in the produce department who's also pregnant with Carl's baby; Buck (Greg Davis Jr. – The King of California), the bagger who is looking towards the future by attending night school; Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield – Steve Saves L.A.), the quirky-soft-spoken customer service representative who lives for Renaissance festivals; Richard (Christopher Liam Moore – Judging Amy), the dignified cashier who dreams of becoming a professional ice dancer; and Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert – The Broken Hearts Club), the sexy butcher who hopes one day to be a stock car driver.
Seeking to undermine Green & Grains is Leslie's arch nemesis, Amy (Jennifer Elise Cox – Lovespring International), who manages the Super Value Mart down the street. He has known her since high school, where she was the popular beauty queen and he, a nerd.
DR: What are you looking forward to the most right now?
JL: More than anything I am looking forward to peace.
I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. For about ten years I have been sober. I lived a really hardcore crazy life in my 20's and 30's.
That is a very difficult thing for me to find peace because I have a very busy brain. I have been able to find certain ways of calming that (at least I used to before my daughter was born). I am involved in sober programs...
It is not as important to me to do something that is huge and self aggrandizing and BIG. I want something that is sort of small and that has a good solid feel to it and that is real and authentic. That is what I am really looking for in my life - authentic experiences. That is what is so great about this show. Yes, it is a TV show and that is a big deal and there are all of the accoutrement that go along with being on a TV show. But, at the same time it is a smaller show and I am involved on all levels. So I can help to create the environment that I have always wanted to work in.
So many of the TV shows that I have worked on as a character actor, I mean God! They take themselves so seriously. It's like they are putting a man on the moon or something. The self importance and the seriousness and people positioning themselves to look so important and to prove that they are important by flaunting their power is something that I really don't want to be a part of personally. Plus, I think that it gets in the way. I mean we are making a comedy here for Christ's sake.
I have worked very hard with Nancy and Robert, my partners, to create an environment that is just -
without any dicks.
We do a lot of things differently, like:
We interviewed every single person that works on our show, down to the Production Assistants and interns. That is about 150 people. Our line producer could not believe that we wanted to meet with everybody but we wanted to make sure that we did not hire people that had the same sort of personality as the kinds of people that we had all worked with in the past; the kind that have the ability to ruin a set and a production.
The biggest challenge for me is that I am a boss and that my job is to manage a fairly large group of people. I love it! I love creating an environment where everybody can do their very best and I love doing that without being a jerk.
How you treat people is more important than the job you do. Don't be a dick!
DR: That should be written on a t-shirt, don't you think?
JL: Yeah -
"DON'T BE A DICK"
DR: How big a part would you say this approach to creating a positive work environment for people will play in overall success?
JL: I feel like it is the key. So much folds into that.
With improv the actors are really put in an awkward position because they don't have any lines. We have a really detailed script that doesn't have any dialogue, it just details the story. It is kind of like a play book is for a coach. Depending on what the actors do, we adjust. Our focus is on putting the actors in the most comfortable place that they can be so that they can do the very best that they can do. The thing about improv is that, in the first ten minutes, everybody uses their tricks and the things they thought of in bed the night before but after ten minutes that is over! Then, you're just talkin'! You're just letting things run out of your mouth.
What I love about improv is that, at its heart it is a therapeutic tool because you don't have anything else to rely on. You end up saying things that are true for you.
When actors really reveal something truthful about themselves through their character -- that is just awesome. You can't get to that unless you create the kind of environment that I'm talking about.
That is when it is really funny.
DR: At the very core of your being, what gets you up in the morning?
JL: My default mode as an addict is depression. My default position in life is fear and depression. That is what is at my core.
I am basically a sweaty fetus inside, afraid of everything and depressed and I know everything is going to go wrong. I have to use this toolbox that I have constructed from that, to get myself out of bed.
What gets me out of bed is not anything that is self will or something that I come up with, it is sort of surrender and an acceptance that
"It is going to be O.K."
I have spent my whole life paddling up the river in my canoe. I am starting now to just let the river take the canoe. I find that when I "try" to do stuff, I fail. I am much better off if I just let life sort of grab me.
A great example of that now is my seven month old daughter. When my daughter just jumps into bed with us, no matter what I thought that I was going to do in the morning, it's about her now.
DR: How would describe you in relationship to the world?
JL: I think that the biggest turn in my life has been realizing that it is not really about me and that I can find that peace that I am looking for if I am being in service to others or aware of others.
A really small thing like just smiling at someone when I am walking with my daughter in the park, saying "Good morning" is all it takes. If I can flow that way and look for places to be connected to people and at the same time causing no harm, if I can do that then I feel like I am a part of the world rather than existing outside of it. I think with my psychological and spiritual make-up, I don't want to be connected really. I want to be separate and depressed and scared. But, I have found that if I reach out in small ways -- (Not in dramatic ways. If I try to do it in dramatic ways then it becomes for me like showing off) -- if I do it in small ways, I get connected.
DR: What have you discovered recently that has impacted you somehow?
JL: Just having my daughter is amazing. It keeps me totally present.
That notion of being present has been really big. Initially I discovered that through meditation. Meditation is just so weird. I mean just the idea of it is ... for somebody who is kind of cynical like me "You mean you just sit there! What?!!"
I learned few basic exercises, and I mean really basic like paying attention to your breathing. As soon as you do that, your mind immediately wanders to --
"I have got to get to the dry cleaners".
I always thought that the whole point of meditation was to be in this spiritual zone where you are not thinking of anything and you are totally present. That is so rare. You spend most of your meditation kind of floating back and forth -
"Oh I have to pick up my dry cleaning. Oh no, back to the mediation. I have to fill up the car. No. Back to the meditation."
I have realized that it is the going back and forth, the in between that is really where the meditation is. Instead of doing it right, I have allowed my experience to be the whole thing. The rub in between the two places is really where it is at. That could be a metaphor for everything --that it is
It is about the going and the doing. It is not about where you want to end up.
That is a very difficult thing for the mind set of an addict because it is a very black and white world -- "I feel bad therefore must get heroin and feel good". There is a real fear of the gray. I think that embracing the gray is probably the biggest thing philosophically for me.
DR: Now along with our t-shirt we have a book title "Embracing the Gray".
JL: "Embracing the Gray"! Yes. I have got to go copyright that immediately.
DR: What's your relationship to curiosity?
JL: I am a very curious person. I love to people watch and eavesdrop. I get in a lot of trouble for that when I get caught.
I like to invent back stories. I love being with my wife and going:
"You see those people there? I think this is their first date. He was married and he hasn't gone out in a long time... "
and we just sit and try to figure out why their dynamic is like it is.
DR: We do that too!
JL: I think every writer does that because we are so curious about what it is that makes people tick.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
JL: Oh God.
God, I don't think anybody is going to remember me a hundred years from now. I am O.K. with that. I am not really too concerned with being remembered a hundred years from now. Maybe Jules, my daughter, will... no she'll be gone... Yeah... .Hmmm...
I'll be a blip. I'll be nothin'. I'll have turned into a bunch of atoms that will have been reformed into a plastic vase that will be sitting on somebody's table somewhere...
I'm O.K. with that.
10 Items Or Less
For additional information visit TBS's 10 Items or Less website.