Alum pursues dream as a grocery clerk

Sara Peck

John Lehr has held the titles of producer, reality TV show host, one-man show performer, and most importantly, one of the original Geico cavemen.

From the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, Lehr, Communication ’88, talked about his most recent project, the second season of TBS’s “10 Items or Less.” Lehr writes, co-produces and stars in the comedy about the antics behind the scenes of a family-owned grocery store.

The Daily: You recently turned down a role in the Geico caveman television series to do “10 Items or Less.” What makes it such an important project?

JL: Well, “10 Items or Less” is my show: I created it, I wrote it and I executive-produced it. It’s like my baby. I did do a guest spot on the pilot playing a caveman weatherman. I haven’t really seen the show, to be honest. I wish it well, and I know a lot of the people involved.

The Daily: You’re an alum of Mee-Ow, so will your heart always be with improv?

JL: Improv is where I stand – it’s where I’ve come from. Maybe it’s because I was raised improperly, but I’m really good at talking on the fly, and I love to do it. It’s terrifying and thrilling. It’s awesome.

The Daily: Did you see yourself sticking with improv after graduation, or doing something else?

JL: I came to NU as a freshman to be a teacher. I wanted to be in speech-ed. I’ve taught on and off throughout my life. I taught fifth and sixth grade in Chicago Public Schools right out of school, and I student-taught in Deerfield and substituted in L.A. I got into Mee-Ow, and I didn’t think that I could make a living out of it – you can’t!

The Daily: What was your most influential experience, class or professor, or was it Mee-Ow that had the most impact on you at NU?

JL: Yeah, it was Mee-Ow, and I took David Zarefsky’s class, and he blew my mind. And also Dwight Conquergood, who taught this class on solo performance. But Mee-Ow was probably the thing that really opened my eyes up to what I wanted to do.

The Daily: Did you have any particularly crazy moments at NU?

JL: Stuff that you can print? I remember the entire cast of the Mee-Ow show had to perform for a group of alumni on Dillo Day, and we couldn’t even find the cast. We found one cast member half-naked on a rock by the lake. I don’t know how good the show was.

The Daily: Did NU adequately prepare you for so many different roles?

JL: NU’s academic approach was really key for me. I read and studied and knew so much. I think that really formed me as a person who likes to learn. I didn’t realize it, but NU was kind of a Hollywood factory. There are a lot of NU people in Hollywood.

The Daily: There seems to be a “NU mafia” in Hollywood.

JL: It’s awesome, it’s great. I’ve worked with a lot of them. NU has some weird connection network that goes on there.

The Daily: Many theater students see you as someone who has “made it.” Do you have any advice for them?

JL: I’ll tell you what I’d like to say to them: Just don’t do it. It’s a brutal, horrible way to make a living, but that said, they’re not going to listen to me. You gotta do what you gotta do. If you’ve got the bug, you’ve got to do it. I think the thing that helped me the most was, make things happen for yourself. Self-produce your stuff. Don’t wait around looking for other people to pick you up. Get your stuff out there yourself. NU is good at training you to do that. Get out of Evanston, and get into the city. That would be my best advice.

The Daily: What was your first job out of college? Did you ever have a low-paying or horrible out-of-college or high school job?

JL: Oh yeah, tons. My first job was at Jamie Winberie’s. Is it still around? I think that it was on Clark or somewhere … It’s like an upscale Bennigans. I was a cook there, and it was a brutal, brutal job. I remember that I worked there my first summer out of college, and there was a heat wave. It was like over 100 degrees for five weeks, and I was on the third floor of this apartment with no air conditioning with my girlfriend and a cat – ugh! It was horrible.

The Daily: What actors or themes would you like to work with in the future, if money and connections were no object? Basically, what is your “dream project?”

JL: Well, that changes from day to day. I’ve got to say, “10 Items” is a big dream project for me, I mean, it’s something that I’ve really wanted to do, so I’m kind of in that mode now. I can’t believe that I’m actually doing this: Producing, writing, and starring in my own show.

Reach Sara Peck at [email protected]