During the wayward days of his freshman year at Northwestern University in Chicago, John Lehr wouldn’t have imagined that someday he would become the star of his own television show.
“My freshman year was not great,” Lehr said. “I got busted smoking dope with my [resident assistant]. I was pretty crazy. I was out of control.”
Now, about twenty years later, Lehr, 42, is the lead actor, writer and producer of TBS’s 10 Items or Less, which kicked off its second season Jan. 15 at 11 p.m.
In the Ohio-based sitcom, Lehr’s character inherits and then manages his late father’s grocery store. In its debut five-episode season last fall, Lehr said the largely improvised show’s ratings topped those of The Daily Show.
“I think 10 Items is probably overall the best, funniest thing I’ve done,” said Lehr, who has one child and will soon be a father of two. “Our intention is to kind of present a show for college kids. That’s the exact audience I’m looking for. College-age people, young adults, are way into absurdity right now for some reason. That is a lot of what 10 Items or Less is . . . stuff that just happens for no reason.”
Lehr is no stranger to show business. Though one wouldn’t guess it by looking at his clean-shaven character in 10 Items or Less, Lehr is the original caveman from the popular GEICO Auto Insurance commercials.
Laughing, he recalled an Oscar appearance he made as the caveman where one woman even insisted on giving him her cell phone number.
“Women were throwing themselves at me. It was unreal,” Lehr said. “It’s crazy, but people just flip over it. I love being a part of it.”
He also appeared in films, such as Kicking and Screaming and The Sweetest Thing, and an episode of Friends, and played Christina Applegate’s brother on Jesse, a short-lived series that aired on NBC between 1998 and 2000.
Lehr always knew he wanted to be an entertainer and got his start in Chicago as a comedian in Ed, an improvisational stage show similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway?
“[Ed] got rave reviews and sold out, and this talent scout from Los Angeles heard about the show, came out and saw it, then flew us to Los Angeles to do a showcase,” Lehr said. “We kicked a– in the showcase and got a big-time agent. We were like the flavor of the month. That was probably the break.”
Though he began his college career as an education major and even taught for some time as his day job, Lehr double majored in theater and education because of his mother’s advice. He has plenty of wisdom to offer college students looking to pursue careers in his highly competitive field.
“If you have any hesitation at all, don’t do it,” Lehr said. “I hate to say that, but if you really want to do it, then my recommendation is learn how to produce stuff yourself. Don’t wait around for someone to cast you in a show.
“I’ve been able to support myself as an actor and as an artist for 10 years, which is unheard of,” he said. “We hear about the big stars, but what we don’t hear about is all the people who never make money.”
In addition to 10 Items or Less, Lehr recently filmed new GEICO commercials and is currently writing a pilot script with his wife, Jennifer.
Morgan A. Zalot can be reached at email@example.com.