10 Items Or Less: The John Lehr Interview

If you’ve tuned to TBS at all in the past few weeks, you know that 10 Items or Less is coming back for Season 2 on Jan. 15 at 11pm ET. 10 Items was one of the better comedies from the fall ’06 season and one that flew under a lot of people’s radar. If you haven’t seen it, think of it as The Office in a grocery store, sans the documentary style. If you’ve been looking for something to cleanse the palate from all the bad reality shows and uninspired midseason replacements during the writers’ strike, 10 Items might offer sweet relief.

We’re going to blog about and recap highlights (and product placements!) from 10 Items here starting next week, so come back and partake in the goodness.

Back in November, I talked with actor/producer John Lehr, who stars as Greens & Grains grocery store owner Leslie Pool, about what’s in store for 10 Items this season. Check out our interview below. And also find out which Starship Enterprise captain Lehr once peed next to in our famous “8 Questions With …” column, only in the January edition of Channel Guide Magazine.

What kind of stories can we expect in Season 2 of 10 Items or Less?

John Lehr: We were really happy with Season 1, so we didn’t want to depart from that in any major way. But at the same time, we’ve been looking to make the show better. I think we’ve really succeeded in the learning curve. In the first season, there’s so much you’re trying to get going, and once you’ve figured it out, then you can start tweaking it up a lot. Technically I think the show looks better — we’re shooting it in HD this time. I just think the way it looks is the most striking thing. And the stories — we’re just focusing on the stories that people seem to like. What we like to do is have some sort of a broad, absurd framework, and then play it really real. Like from last year, the Jesus stain [episode]. It’s just this kind of absurd thing that was happening at the store, but we all sort of really buy into it. The store is going to be held up this year — there’s like a Dog Day Afternoon kind of thing where the entire crew is held hostage. There’s a big Renaissance festival episode that ends the season — we end up having to take on Super Value Mart, which is the evil store across the street, in a big jousting festival, which is pretty cool. The fact is, we really did it. We’re in grocery carts! It’s pretty funny. I just saw a rough cut of it and it’s hilarious. Leslie and Todd the butcher decide to start a new business where they think that people want fresh beef — really fresh beef — so they get a live cow in the store and are going to slaughter it right in front of people like sushi. They call it “mooshi,” which is just incredible. That episode really hit. And also now that we’ve been able to establish the characters, we’re able to advance them slightly. Ingrid, you may remember the blonde from last year, is a virgin, and this year she decides to lose her virginity, which happens in a really funny way … and I don’t want to give it away. You get the idea. There’s an homage to Star Wars where Leslie goes to the Dark Side and the crew has to bring him back. You know, crazy. Zany. But at the same time everything’s played really real. So I think what’s great about our show, which I love about our show, is that you can invest in the relationships, even though they’re doing really silly absurd stuff.

Maybe some people find them annoying, but I love the product placements in your show. How do you guys fit these in so cleverly without making them seem forced?

JL: First of all, I think most people are like you. Everybody talks about how product placement annoys the hell out of the viewer. I really don’t buy that. I think annoying comedy annoys the viewer. I don’t think people care. I certainly don’t, as long as I’m entertained and it’s truly integrated into the story. As a viewer, I understand that they need to pay their bills. I know that [the show] is free. I’m a big football fan — there’s all kinds of ads all over the place, on the field and everything. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the game, I’m fine with it. I think we’re in the great position of not only having the opportunity to do it, but it’s almost a perfect integration because these products are there, they’re in the store, and Leslie loves all of his products because he’s the manager of the store. It’s just a perfect fit for us. When Nancy Hower and Robert Hickey and I created the show, we had that in mind. The plain and simple truth is, now with TiVo and everything, TV is not going to be free anymore unless we can make stuff like this work. And that’s just the bottom line. So when we created the show, we were looking for a way. We knew that we were going to be asked to integrate products, like every show. And we decided that instead of taking the attitude of like, “Oh, this is influencing our art and getting in the way,” we were like, “You know what? No. Let’s embrace it and figure out a way to do it where not only will it not annoy people, but it will actually enhance the show.” I think it’s worked. We got lots of really great feedback over the integrations that we had last year. From our fan base, I do not get the response that it annoys them. So far, so good.

I think the only way product placements have been dealt with is one of two ways. One is to ignore it: You know, where Tony Soprano happens to be drinking a can of Coke, right? And we all know that, and I think that really takes me out of the scene, because they’re not copping to it, I feel manipulated and it just doesn’t work for me. And the other way is to bring so much attention to it that they make a joke out of it. I’ve seen this on shows where they’re like, “We don’t do product placements,” and as they’re saying that, they pick up a bottle of Snapple or something. And that annoys me too, because it’s like, “F***, let’s just stay in the show,” you know? And with our show, I think we’re able to do this in kind of a new way, which is like, “Yeah, we’re talking about the product because he’s selling the product in his store and he believes in it.” And then we work really hard to not just “fit” it into the show, but make it an actual comic beat in the show. I’m really proud of it.

I understand that the grocery store the show is filmed at is an actual working grocery store open for business while you’re shooting?

JL: That’s right. The main reason for it is just finance. It’s a low-budget show, and we can’t afford to close down a grocery store, which costs thousands and thousands of dollars. So we struck a deal with a grocery store in Reseda [Calif.] where we work together, and it’s a pretty amazing thing to see these two businesses operating side by side. I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s just perfect. The best thing about it is that when I’m done with my shift I can do my shopping and just bring it home, which is just awesome! And the other kind of cool thing, the kind of sobering thing about it is sometimes people in the TV business become so self-important, like they’re curing cancer or something, like what we’re doing is the most important thing in the world. And it’s easy to get caught up in that. And to see people who are actually working for a living, who are actually doing real jobs, working side by side with you gives it really good perspective for everybody.

Have you been mistaken for a real employee?

JL: All the time. All the time. At first, I used to try to explain, “I’m an actor, we’re doing a thing.” And then I was like, “Oh, forget it. It’s right down here.” And then I started to learn where the products are, so now I just tell them where it is. [Laughs] So all the cast, we’ve kind of memorized where everything is. “Have you tried aisle 3? I think it’s on the right-hand side.” It’s just hilarious.

As a former Geico Caveman, what are your opinions about the ABC Cavemen sitcom?

JL: To be honest with you, and I know this probably sounds like a shrug, like I’m just dodging it, but I have not seen very much of it. I’ve only seen the pilot. I did a small part in the pilot where I played the weatherman, just a really quick appearance. They wanted me to be involved in it and I couldn’t because of my deal with TBS, and to be frank, my show is my show, and even given the choice I would much rather do 10 Items. I support the guys who did it because a lot of them are the ones who did the commercials. I hear all kinds of things. I know I see the ratings are not great, and that’s probably a good indication of how the show’s doing. But I never know, man. I never know what’s going to work or not, and to pretend like I do would be just silly. But it seems like America isn’t buying it. But I know all the people over there and they’re all really talented people. I hope the show makes it, but I don’t know.

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About Ryan Berenz 1980 Articles
Devotee of Star Wars. Builder of LEGO. Observer of televised sports. Member of the Television Critics Association. Graduate of the University of Wisconsin. Connoisseur of beer. Consumer of cheese. Father of two. Husband of one. Scourge of the Alaskan Bush People. Font of Simpsons knowledge. Son of a Stonecutter.