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Supermarket Sweepstakes

January 24, 2008 By:
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Two-faced? Yes, in the best way -- and it's really paid off for versatile star John Lehr.
Would you buy used car insurance from this man?

Well, maybe if you'd just run over Fred Flintstone.

The Geico Caveman is just one face -- albeit the one bushy and unbrushed -- of the likeable John Lehr, whose bio is a bedrock of the importance of improv.

Certainly's improved his life.

And if there's a smile on his lips, there's a bam-bam in his eyes. Because Lehr, a Northwestern University graduate, has added the South and East to his estimable talent of taking the country by storm.

Shopping for compliments? He's come to the write place: Lehr, 42, is writing/starring in "10 Items or Less," a deliciously daffy improv of a comedy (with an outline) that goes where few other shows have gone: to the supermarket.

And it's all on TBS, Tuesday nights at 11, where the network knows good produce when it sees it: Lehr is an exec producer as well as co-creator and a writer.

Mop-up on Aisle 1? Clean sweep for Lehr, whose Caveman ads and past improv performances make him one of the most recognizable faces on TV.

Well, maybe not recognizable -- "There's a lot of hair there," he says of the intensive two-hour Geico makeup session that changes him from neo-handsome to Neanderthal -- but certainly an actor whose lightweight supermarket manager manages to be an item or two over the express- line limit.

Indeed, "10 Items or Less" is, more or less, a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" with shopping-cart appeal. Mark down Lehr's Leslie Pool as a surprise star of a show with sticker shock. After all, it wasn't that long ago that the Kansas City, Kansas cutup would have been cruising the liquor aisle in a store instead of stocking it as a TV character.

Lehr's lair was different then; he didn't know jack about supermarkets, but he did know plenty about Jack Daniels.

"I'm a recovering alcoholic," and "10 Items" is one of those 12 steps that has continued to lead him out of a messy morass of a past.

His own bar codes included ringing up alcohol as a daily special. But now, clean and sober for 12 years, Lehr, once a substitute school teacher while going for his education degree, has learned that sobriety substitutes its own saucy substance: Happiness.

And Judaism just may have played an important role in getting him there. With the advice and encouragement of his Jewish sweetheart and with her observant family as role models, he began taking classes at the University of Judaism in California. Next, under the canopy we see them: His girlfriend marched down the aisle with Lehr -- and he converted to Judaism in 2000.

Special 'K'
Indeed, maybe "10 Items or less" should think more of having a kosher butcher in its meat department. "Hmm, we thought of that," he muses. "We absolutely should."

If his life is branded with a special "K" these days, for years Lehr was a self-labeled loser.

"Twelve years ago, I got arrested," he says of that most sobering episode of his life. "Part of it was a spiritual malady I had."

Sinner-cum-synagogue member?

"My getting sober and my new spiritual path came together," he says of the rites road he's now on.

Prick his bubble? No, but one decision did hurt a bit on his way to a new life with his wife, Jennifer, a respected author herself.

The cute comical cutup found that, with all its festivity and fun, Judaism was not mohel of the same. "Circumcision," and there seems to be an ouch in his voice yet as he says it, 10 years after going through the procedure at age 32.

That's some thirtysomething birthday present. After the procedure, "done in the mohel's home," he tied it up "in a bow and gave it to me."

If the mohel had final cut, he may have been hoping that his client had influence. "Right after, he says, 'You know my son is a director; you should read his script.' "

Forsaking foreskin for a pitch? "The funny thing is I knew the film; I had auditioned for it," laughs Lehr. "And he, the mohel, got me a callback. The Jewish mafia does exist."

He didn't make Lehr an offer he couldn't refuse; well, there was no offer.

Alas, acting, like circumcision, is a circumspect business, where once it's done, it's done.

"I still didn't get the part."

But there have been others: Lehr starred in "Memron," a parody of the Enron end run, and wound up doing a Slamdance film festival victory dance.

He also talks about his role as the unspoken-for brother on TV's sitcom "Jesse," whose silence is golden gig got him great reviews.

Of packing bags and punchlines ... Now there's "10 Items or Less," shot in a real supermarket during regular hours. Actor interruptus?

"I have had some customers ask me where things are. In the beginning, I would say, 'I'm an actor; I don't know where the ketchup is!' "

But now he's a seasoned actor and not such a green grocer. "Now, I'm asked, I say, 'It's on Aisle 4.' "

The store may not give away Top Value stamps, but it does have its own stamp of success he values. "You know, it's not bad. You can shop while you're shooting," says Lehr.

Shoot, says the Midwesterner, from Caveman to comic host of "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here" to this outta here role as supermarket manager, he has taken tikkun olam to a very personal level.

Existence as a supermarket sweepstakes? "Repairing the world sums it all up," he says.

"I'm sober, married, a father; I'm Jewish, a producer ... I used to be all about myself, but I've learned to let the universe speak to me, and now," says the erstwhile TV character with his own mute button now attuned to turning up life's volume, "I am much, much happier." 

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