John Lehr thought he would spend his life as a schoolteacher, but a funny thing happened while he was studying for a teaching certificate at Northwestern.
He discovered the Mee-Ow Show.
"I was like, 'Wait, you can say whatever you want, and people will sit there and listen to it?'" Lehr says.
Lehr (C88) performed with the annual student-run comedy revue and improv show from sophomore through senior year, including two trips to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
"Scottish people like American improv — especially when we make fun of ourselves," Lehr explains.
Hollywood writer and producer Jonathan Craven (C87) (son of film writer and director Wes Craven) directed the show during Lehr's junior year.
"John was the funniest guy in the show. He was the go-to guy. He had the improv talents and charisma — sort of a deadly combo," Craven says.
Craven remembers their first trip to Edinburgh, when "none of us had any money … and John said, 'Before we go, you have to learn how to juggle, and you and I are going to busk.'"
So the duo performed on the streets of Edinburgh and made about 25 pounds a day with Lehr's improvised comedy and juggling routine.
"If all else failed, John would moon the audience during the show," Craven recalls. "He was the Mee-Ow Show's all-star member, and we were all sure he was going to be a big star."
Most of Lehr's memories of Northwestern revolve around improv, including a 24-hour stint he did at the Rock as part of a fundraiser. He also hosted and produced a student-run cable access show called Now We're Talking.
"College was such an important time for me," says Lehr, who credits Northwestern with challenging him and giving him the confidence to succeed as a performer.
"Northwestern does a really good job of training people, first in a very scholarly approach to theater, so you're very well read, but second so you know how to produce theater," Lehr says. "Because my talent is a little different, I had to produce my own shows to get people to see what I do, and I learned all of that at Northwestern."
After earning a teaching certificate through the School of Communication, he taught fifth and sixth grade at Kilmer Elementary School in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.
During that same time, Lehr was doing improv on the side. He took classes at Second City and later performed at many Chicago venues, including Schubas, the Union and the Wrigleyville Tap.
At one point he and a friend were spotted by a talent scout and flown to Los Angeles to do a showcase. Then Lehr decided to move to Los Angeles. He taught school there for four years, doing improv in his spare time until he got enough acting jobs to pay the rent.
After starting with bit parts on television shows such as Friends and Lois & Clark, he landed the role of Christina Applegate's mute brother on the series Jesse in 1998.
"That was a great gig because I didn't have to learn any lines. It was fantastic. I made $16,000 a week, and I didn't have to do anything," he says.
Lehr does have to do a bit more, however, in the role for which he's best known — that of a caveman on Geico insurance ads.
It takes him three hours to put on all the Neanderthal makeup. Once that's done, Lehr's really in his element.
"They let me improvise, so I get to do what I want. It's a sweet gig," Lehr says.
In one commercial set in a therapist's office, he improvised the ending, when the caveman gets a phone call and says, "My mother's calling. I'll put it on speaker."
Lehr's latest triumph is 10 Items or Less, a comedy on TBS in which he stars as Leslie Pool, the owner and manager of the fictitious Dayton grocery store Greens & Grains.
"I wanted to do a comedy that the country would be interested in seeing and having characters from the Midwest without making fun of them," explains Lehr. "Yes, the characters are goofy and ridiculous, but they're not goofy and ridiculous because they're from the Midwest."
Filmed at Jon's, an operational grocery store in Reseda, Calif., the show is largely based on an IGA grocery store in El Dorado, Kan., where some of Lehr's family is from. Trivia fans can take note that the photos in Leslie Pool's office are actual Lehr family photos.
Lehr's also a producer and a writer on the show — even though there's no real script.
"It's a detailed outline of where the show could go. I compare it with being a basketball coach. You have the plays that you want to run, but what happens on the floor happens on the floor. … If the shot's open, take it," Lehr says.
Since 10 Items or Less is set in a real grocery store, sometimes the unexpected happens.
"We were shooting one day, and all of the sudden two cops come running in, and then they bring out a guy in cuffs," Lehr says. "While we were shooting, a guy had pulled a gun over in the produce department."
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Life in Los Angeles can be an adjustment for any Midwesterner (Lehr grew up in Overland Park, Kan.), but Lehr's decision to convert to Judaism made for another big transition in his life. After he started dating Jennifer, the Jewish woman who is now his wife, Lehr took conversion classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles.
Some aspects of the conversion process weren't easy for him — including his circumcision.
"I found myself in the San Fernando Valley in a mohel's house, in his bathroom, my penis on his counter, getting pricked with a pin and saying the Shehechiyanu. That was a little weird," he says. "And for those at home — it hurts. So guys, think twice. The Jews don't want ya. If you want in, you've got to want it. They're not going to let just anybody in."
The experience led to an only-in-Hollywood scenario as the mohel, upon learning that Lehr was an actor, suggested that Lehr send his photograph to the mohel's son, who was a movie director.
"Now my pants are around my ankles while he's talking to me," Lehr recalls, "but I realized I knew about the movie, and I had auditioned for it, and I had screwed up the audition. The following week I got a callback. I was in the Jewish mafia immediately."
Now, with 10 Items, he's able to do improv for a living, and he's loving it. He expects the show to be renewed for another season, and he recently signed on for more caveman commercials with Geico.
"The country's in the worst recession ever, and my career's doing better than ever," he says. "It's kind of odd. I feel kind of guilty — maybe because I'm Jewish."
See video from Beth Lipoff's interview with John Lehr.
Beth Lipoff (J06), a former staff writer at the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle in Overland Park, Kan., won two awards from the Kansas City Press Club of the Society of Professional Journalists in the non-daily newspaper category. In July she will participate in the Gralla Fellows Program, which seeks to enhance the quality of religion journalism by providing journalists in the early and middle stages of their careers with four days of intensive instruction in Jewish studies at Brandeis University in Boston.
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