I was making up a list in my head. On it is ‘Seinfeld.’ Also ‘Cheers‘ and ‘Adventure Time.’ More get added, shows like ‘Code Monkeys‘ and ‘Star Trek.’ That’s original series and Next Generation. I don’t know what to call this list, but it would seem like the title would go something like, ‘My Favorite TV Shows’ or ‘The Best TV Shows Ever According To Me Right Now.’
Really what it is, is a list of shows that have stuck with me. I feel them, for lack of a better word, and I’m sure there is a better word but these are shows that I watch repeatedly. One show that I always have on this internal list is ‘10 Items or Less.’The show ran on TBS for three seasons, from 2006 to 2009. There are only 21 episodes of it and I encourage everyone to at least watch one episode and decide for themselves.
‘Turkey Bowling‘? That’s a good one. Or maybe ‘The Bromance‘, where Paul Scheer shows up as a villainous figure skater to battle over the coveted role of Gollum in the local ice performance of ‘Lord of the Rings.’
Let me give a brief rundown of the show. It goes as thus — Bud Pool owns a family grocery store in rural Ohio and he suddenly dies. His son Leslie, who had gone off to New York City to seek success, comes home to run the store with his father’s dedicated staff.
The story lines could compete with the best of ‘Seinfeld’ for inspired creativity.
I was lucky enough to get in contact with John Lehr, who with his partner Nancy Hower wrote and created ‘10 Items or Less.’ John also played Leslie Pool, the unbelievably upbeat yet beat upon manager of the Greens & Grains grocery store. John was kind enough to play along with an interview.
ET: I’ve heard that ’10 Items or Less’ was improvised but there was an outline for each episode. How did you guys handle the writing of the outline? Who was involved?
JL: All of the scripts were written by Nancy Hower and me. I think the execs at TBS bummed out when they received them because they were heavily written. Each half hour ep script came in at around 25 pages single spaced.
They were pretty dense plot wise BUT there was no dialogue and the scripts were never given to the cast. The whole idea was to get to the spontaneous fresh comedy that only improv provides without losing the strong narrative that we felt was imperative (hey that rhymed!). The cast would show up to the set, Nancy (who directed all the episodes) would give them the basic info to start the scene and we would go.
I knew the script of course and Nancy knew the script so we could guide it if need be. The reason the cast never received the script is because we didn’t want them to feel like they should plan anything. Once you go down the planning road you might as well throw out improv altogether and just write it.
Somewhere around the middle of the first season the cast revolted and demanded the scripts. We handed them over. They read them, handed them back to us and said, ‘don’t show those to us again.’
What’s the advantage of doing a show like ’10 Items Or Less’ improvised as opposed to 100% scripted?
For us, it has lots of advantages. We use improv to create an actor-driven show rather than a writer-driven show. I think one of the upsides is that the characters are original, specific and complex because the actor has a major hand in creating the character rather than executing a writer’s creation.
I think the actor ends up owning the character in a way the scripted version can’t provide. We have a rule that whatever is created (in a take, in rehearsal or in the show) becomes a part of the world of the show.
For example, Christopher Liam Moore, who played Richard, was in a rehearsal scene where he mentioned that Richard’s dream was to become an ice skater. Nancy and I jumped on this idea and ended up with the B-plot in ‘Bromance’ where he was auditioning to play Gollum in a local ice show. Fucking hilarious. Except for the fact the Chris can’t skate. That was problematic as hell.
Like any good actor, when asked if he can do something his answer is always ‘yes.’ When it was time to shoot, it was brutal. Nancy cut around it and we used a stunt skater so it worked.
Improv also creates behavior oriented comedy which is my favorite. One of my all time favorite movies is Spinal Tap. There are hilarious situations and lines but it is the behavior of the band and the relationships that crack me up the most. Finally improv is incredibly efficient. The production structure and amount of footage generated is similar to a reality show.
Every take is different and Nancy often says she could cut multiple versions of an episode that would be entirely different. Our sets are like a writer’s pitch room for a sitcom except the writers are all in costume and we are shooting the whole thing. It’s cheaper too.
You’re referred to as a ‘comedic performer’ on your site. With so much of your work being improv based, have you ever done stand up? How do you keep your comedy skills sharp?
I wouldn’t say I’ve done conventional stand-up (except for a horrific night in the nineties at the Funny Firm in Chicago) but I did do a series of Comedic Lectures in LA and Off-Broadway in NYC. There were six different 90 minute ‘lectures’ that I would do in rotation. Essentially it looked like a college lecture from the 50’s or 60’s with low tech AV props (chalkboard, podium, easel, pointer, etc) where I would ‘prove’ a theory using historical research combined with stories from my real life.
For example, one lecture was called “Bigfoot, the Donner Party and My Arrest” where I essentially proved that Grover S. Krantz (anthropologist who believed Bigfoot existed), George Donner (leader of the cannibalistic Donner Party) and myself (when I was arrested in the 90’s) all made a series of bad mistakes. They were a blast to do. I have posted the audio of three of the lectures in podcast form on www.johnlehr.com
How many show ideas do you have going at one time? How do you and your partner Nancy choose which idea to pursue?
Jesus lord I have no idea. Seven? But I should stress that our business model is not just to throw shitloads of ideas against the wall and wait for something to stick.
However, once we got 10 Items on the air and landed some pilots third parties started to come to us to partner up. That makes it a lot easier to develop stuff. I think Nancy and I are very good at pursuing what we love to do first and foremost. We stick to our guns because we love doing it. At the same time, we do get info from our agents, which is extremely helpful — what each network is looking for, etc.
Do you have any features you’ve developed? What makes a good idea for a film, TV, or web short?
Nancy and I started working together on a low budget film called ‘Memron‘ (which made fun of the Enron crisis). It’s on Netflix and I think if holds up pretty well.
Nancy did EVERYTHING on that film: wrote, directed, produce, edited, fundraised, music… She shot it by strapping the camera to her chest and holding a boom docu style. It was a blast to work on and it was after it won Slamdance that we decided to start working together. You’ll recognize a lot of people from 10 Items and Jailbait on Memron.
How long have you and Nancy worked together? Have you always worked with a partner?
I have worked with other partners but Nancy is far and above the best partner I have ever had. We have now been working together for 12 years and I love it. Honestly I don’t know how people do it on their own — particularly in comedy.
Executives often come from a logic perspective when they are giving notes and to have a partner to remind you that “hey it may not be logical but it cracks me up” is super important. Also the business is so harsh that it’s great to have someone to remind you why you are attempting this ridiculous career.
One thing that flows between ’10 Items or Less’ and ‘Jailbait’ is the sheer optimism of your characters. No matter how wonderfully absurd the situation gets, your Leslie Pool always has the best interest of his friends in mind first. It’s incredible how well that show was able to balance wackiness and heart. How concerned are you with that balance of heart and comedy?
Ha! You are right — which is so weird since I believe I am not necessarily an optimistic person. Who knows what’s going on psychologically for me. That’s the thing about improv. Historically, at its core, improv is essentially role playing which is used by therapists everywhere.
What’s so cool is when you are shooting a scene, after the first few minutes, your left brain opens up and…the truth comes out. It’s really fascinating to see what people end up talking about via their characters.
That said, it is really important to Nancy and I to focus on relationships in our comedy. The two characters in a scene may be in a ridiculous situation but it’s real and important to them. I think the heart you are talking about comes out of those relationships.
The improvised nature of ’10 Items or Less’ has to put a lot of pressure on the actors. You were surrounded by an impressively talented cast who managed to be hilarious and also bring some strong emotional connections to the relationships and crazy situations the workers of the Greens & Grains found themselves in. Usually comedians can’t pull that off, but damn – you all did. As one of the creators how involved were you able to be in the casting?
Tim Payne, Lisa Ystrom and Evie Peck run the casting side of our productions and do an incredible job. We look for improvisers but we also look for people who are just great actors. There were plenty of people in “10 Items” that had never improvised in their lives and were nervous as hell.
We don’t like to overload a cast with improvisers because it can tend to get into the world of a wit competition and we end up losing the relationship comedy, which we are really after. Everybody wants jokes but we need people who are stated in their character and are not “trying” to be funny all the time. Tim, Lisa and Evie generally bring people in and improvise a scene with them that takes place outside the episode.
For example, let’s say we are auditioning for the role of a milk deliveryman who gets in a fight with Lesley. In casting we might ask him to improvise a scene where he is applying to be a milkman. The casting people will pair down the casting choices to a manageable group that audition for Nancy and I.
Nancy runs the scene and usually shoots in on video. I improvised with each candidate. It’s exhausting but it works. Once we cast the actor, the information he created in the audition will be part of his character. He will feel ownership and confidence in who his character is rather than the “get it right” philosophy of some scripted work.
I lived in Los Angeles for about a year trying to make it as a writer. It didn’t quite work out for me. How did you maneuver LA? Was there a moment for you where your career just clicked?
Ha! I think I’m still waiting for my career to click. Although my brother always points out that I am paying the bills doing what I want to do so I shouldn’t complain. I had a weird path to LA. I was doing tons of improv theater and bar gigs in Chicago and a talent scout from Fox “discovered” a show I was doing and flew us out here for a showcase. Every God damned agent, manager and network executive in town was there. Why? I have no idea.
Out of that showcase we got a huge agent, a huge manager and a holding deal at NBC. We were the flavor of the month but had no idea what we were doing and were lucky as hell to get a silly show on E! called News Weasels (don’t ask).
That show petered out after a season, my agent dropped me and I had to start from square one. I knew I wanted to take improv (this was before “Whose Line is it Anyway” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and put it on TV but no one was interested. What I needed was someone who could direct and edit. When I met Nancy I found that and so much more. She is one of those people who is a phenom. Seriously — this woman is a super talent and I am lucky as hell to have found her. Everything I have accomplished is thanks to her.
Both ‘Jailbait’ and ’10 Items or Less’ have the feel of BBC comedies like ‘Peep Show,’ ‘Black Books,’ and ‘Spaced,’ great comedies that come from strong characters from David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Dylan Moran, and Simon Pegg and others. BBC shows seem to live on in some perpetual cult universe and I think that ’10 Items or Less’ definitely exists in that same wonderful world for me. For you what’s better – to have a show on the air for ten seasons or to have a few different shows on over the course of ten years? What sort of filmography are you and Nancy looking to have?
Tough one. I think having a few different shows would satisfy my creative side but one show for 10 seasons would certainly satisfy my financial side. Can I do both? As to the BBC, I totally agree. We know that 10 Items did really well in the UK when Sony sold it internationally.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, we have worked with the BBC on a project and loved them. My comedy background was essentially Spinal Tap and Monty Python. I think I may have watched ‘Life of Brian’ 1000 times.
If you haven’t already (why not?) check out ‘10 Items or Less.’ Here, I’ll help you. Here’s ‘The Bromance‘ —
John and Nancy have a great YouTube page too.
One more Oh! Here’s my previous article on John Lehr and ’10 Items or Less’ that lead to this interview. God bless the internet!