The Popdose Interview: John Lehr

John Lehr has done time as a lesser member of a sitcom ensemble (“Jesse”), hosted a reality show (“I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”), and been a go-to guy for an art-house darling (he’s been in three of Noah Baumbach’s films, including the very awesome “Kicking and Screaming”), but odds are relatively good that most people will recognize his face from his stint as Leslie Pool, owner of Greens & Grains on TBS’s “10 Items or Less.” It was a great little show, notable for being almost entirely improvised, but it just didn’t get the kind of love it deserved, mostly because it wasn’t the sort of series that people went looking for on TBS. Fortunately, Lehr has a new gig – “Jailbait” – and it’s pretty darned funny, too. Learn all about Lehr’s new endeavor by reading our chat with this very funny gentleman, and after you’re done, you can check out the show by heading over to Crackle.com…which, as it happens, also offers episodes of “10 Items or Less” for your viewing pleasure.

Popdose: Well, I know we’re here to talk about “Jailbait,” but I still feel as though I’d be remiss if I didn’t start out by telling you that I was a big fan of “10 Items or Less.”

John Lehr: Thank you! Yeah, me, too! (Laughs) We had a blast making it, and we were bummed that it was canceled, but happy that it went three seasons.

I’ve got the DVD of…I guess it’s the first two seasons in one set.

Yeah! I wish they’d glue the 3rd season on and re-release it, but…they’ve been running them on Crackle forever, and I guess they do pretty well. ‘Cause they’re trying to build up their viewership on Crackle, and I think “10 Items” has kind of helped them out. I think it’s got a little following, you know?

Yeah, when it was originally on TBS…I mean, admittedly, not nearly enough people knew it was on, but the people who did know tended to be really enthusiastic about it, including myself.

Yeah, that’s exactly right. Well, TBS put it on in late night, which was really kind of a weird timeslot. But I think for them, we were pretty late night. At that time, anyway. Now they’ve got “Conan” on there, and I think they’ve loosened up a little bit, but…we were kind of the weird stepchild. They were, like, “Okay, people like them, they’re funny, but…why is it funny?” (Laughs) I don’t think they fully got it. I mean, they had Tyler Perry and “My Boys,” which were really a much more conservative thing, whereas I think with us, they were, “Okay, so, wait, you don’t write any lines down?”

I always imagined that somewhere along the line a pitch that it was “kind of like ‘ Curb Your Enthusiasm’” had backfired, where some executive went, “Ooooooooh, that’s kind of an edgy show. We should probably put this thing in late night.”

(Laughs) That’s exactly what happened! And, you know, they couldn’t help but laugh at it, but I really don’t think they ever knew why they were laughing at it, but their comments were always, like, “You know, it’s funny, but it’s just crazy!” And we’re, like, “Uh, yeah, that is true, it is crazy…”

So what were the steps that took you from “10 Items” to “Jailbait”? Did you have the idea for “Jailbait” some time ago, or did it just happen to come about when you were considering your next project?

Well, when “10 Items” was in its third season, right when it was canceled, we did a pilot for Fox, an animated pilot starring Jeff Foxworthy, and it was set in the world of NASCAR. So we went right on to that job…and when I say “we,” I mean Nancy Hower and myself. We wrote all the episodes of “10 Items,” Nancy directed all the episodes of “10 Items,” and then I starred in it. So we’re kind of a two-man band. So we did this pilot for Fox, and…it was animation, and it was fun, but it was kind of like an office job, you know? We didn’t really realize the obvious. We didn’t think it through, ‘cause…I remember we were sitting in our office one day, and we’re, like, “We’re never going to a set. Ever.” (Laughs) And being on the set is what we live for, both of us, as an actor and director. The only reason we write and produce is to be able to act and direct, really, and we were just, like, “Wow, if this goes ten years, we’re going to be in an office, just looking at drawings on our computer!” So Nancy actually came up with the idea. She was, like, “Well, let’s pitch a live-action thing while we’re doing this,” and she came up with the idea of doing it in a jail. And we both loved it immediately, because it was such a departure from “10 Items.” We loved working for TBS, we really did. They were great people. But to be able to do something edgier, in an edgier environment…I mean, just the idea of being able to do the comedy version of “Oz,” we were just, like, “Yeah!”

What, like “Oz” wasn’t funny enough already?

You’re right. We’re never going to reach that level. It’s really more of an homage.(Laughs) So, yeah, we were developing that, and we were getting ready to take it out to networks, although, you know, it was pretty edgy, and we weren’t sure where it was going to fit. But we weren’t really thinking about that. And Sony approached us…they produced “10 Items,” and we’ve had a few deals with them…and they said, “Look, would you guys be interested in doing a web series for Crackle?” And we loved the idea of doing something for the web, but we could never make it work financially. Not in terms of pay, but in terms of production values. I mean, we would go in and take these meetings, and they were really cool and really exciting – you know, “You can do whatever you want!” – and then we’d get down to the budget, and it’d be, like, “Can you basically use your own money to make this?” (Laughs) And, you know, with two kids…we’re kind of in a different place, you know? Maybe out of college or something I would’ve been totally into that, but it’s, like, you know, whatever. Reality. But Sony…they weren’t offering a fortune, but it was a decent deal. And most importantly, they did it fully union. So this was a DGA / WGA / AFTRA production. And, you know, all of our unions have totally caved for internet, the rates are lower, but at least we could get talented people to work…well, you know, essentially as a favor, but they wouldn’t risk losing their health insurance from AFTRA or whatever. And that really made the difference. So we were, like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So we shot all ten of them in, like, two days, and we were all deathly ill. We all had horrible flu. All of us. But, you know, we cut out all the sneezes and shivering. (Laughs) And I’m pretty happy with it, you know? I was looking at them again, and they’re just…there’s nothing really precious about them, which I really like, and…I don’t know, they just seem to crack people up. Which is pretty cool.

Was it nice to be able to do the adlibbing and not have to worry about the censors? Or, at least, not on the same level, anyway. I’m sure there must have been some taboos.

Yeah, there were a couple of cuts that we sent in. You know, we shoot tons of footage, and there’s definitely material that we… (Starts to laugh) …improvised on that didn’t make it. But, you know, our thing isn’t, like, “Oh, let’s see how derogatory we can be…” That’s never been our thing. We just wanted to be able to feel natural and talk about issues. But our whole thing has always been, “Let’s take things that are taboo but treat them like they’re really mundane.” Like the way my character talks about “storing” at one point. You know, “In prison, you put things in your anus. That’s where you put them.”

Well, sure.

So the idea is that it’s not, like, “Ha, ha, it’s butt humor,” but more like, “This is just the way things are, and you’ve got to deal with it.” I find that kind of awkward, uncomfortable stuff really funny. (Laughs)

I was pleased to see that you managed to bring a few other “10 Items” alumni over to “Jailbait” with you.

Oh, yeah! Not only in front of the camera, but also behind the camera. We are very loyal to the people we work with. Tim Bagley, that guy is genius. He’s just gold every time, and he and I have a great relationship. I just love working with him. We also had Evie Peck. She played the nurse in two episodes of “Jailbait,” I think, and she was in quite a few episodes of “10 Items” and was an associate producer on the show as well. And Dan Parker, who plays…I don’t know if you’ve seen any of these, but Dan Parker played a serial killer, and he played Chet, the cop on “10 Items.” So, yeah, there’s a lot of crossover, but there are a lot of new people, too.

Yeah, I think it’s a testament to the talent that you had on “10 Items” that both Tim Bagley and Bob Clendenin are currently on network shows (“Shit My Dad Says” and “Cougar Town,” respectively).

Oh, yeah, I forgot about Bob! (Laughs) Well, you know, Tim and Bob are just hardcore working actors. Those guys work non-stop.

Who would you say is the standout discovery of “Jailbait”?

Hmmm. “The standout discovery.” Yeah, I think…Dan Parker was probably the breakout character, but I don’t know if you’d classify him as a discovery, since we worked with him on “10 Items.” Sandra Vergara, who plays the pen-pal in… (Hesitates) Have you seen any of these?

I have seen some. Not all. But what I haven’t seen, I have in queue, I swear…

Oh, good. (Laughs) No worries, no worries! Well, there’s an episode where Ozzie has been exchanging letters with a prison pen-pal, and she comes to visit him, and she’s played by Sandra Vergara, whose sister is on “Modern Family.”

Oh, sure, Sofia Vergara.

Yeah, exactly. And you can definitely see the resemblance. (Laughs) I think she really kind of pops. She was, like, a loose wire, and she totally took to the improv. And she’s gorgeous, you know, so that helps. (Laughs)

Have you ever had someone come in…and you don’t have to name names here…who’s come in to audition for the show, and they’re totally not as good as improvisation as they think they are?

All the time. And those people often – well, sometimes, anyway – are the people who have been taking a lot of improv classes and really love it! Improv is so much fun, and almost everybody can do it to a certain degree…and that has its upsides and its downsides. (Laughs) Because, you know, already everybody thinks they’re an actor. Everybody’s sitting at home watching TV and thinking, “I can do that!” And improv almost makes it easier, at least from their point of view, because you don’t have to memorize the lines, which usually weeds out a lot of people. So you get a lot of people who, yeah, kind of aren’t as good as they might think. What we usually try to weed out are people who are trying to be funny. If you’re trying to be funny and you’re trying to come up with funny lines and everything…I mean, we’re going to get that. That’s going to come out. We’re not worried about that. What we really want are people who can really play the scene and really be in a relationship. And a lot of people who come out of some of the improv schools are kind of more trying to one-up each other. And with our style, it’s just not compatible. A lot of our actors…like, Dan Parker, for instance, I don’t know if he’s ever taken an improv class. Tim Bagley has. Tim Bagley was at the Groundlings. Evie Peck has taken some, but not a ton. I mean, a lot of our ringers are just really strong actors who can play the scenes. And, you know, Nancy’s directing, and…it’s really an interesting set, because she’s really a player in the scene as well. So there’s a lot to it that isn’t really about, “Okay, be funny!” I mean, that’s the last thing we want people to feel the pressure to do. So, you know, hopefully the situation that we’ve devised is enough, and then if you just play it for real, it’s going to be funny. Hopefully. (Laughs)

I just wanted to hit a couple of things that are on your IMDb page…so, y’know, I’m sure they’re accurate.

(Laughs) Oh, God, I hate IMDb.

As do most actors, I think. Journalists, on the other hand, love it!

Oh, yeah, it’s a good resource. But it’s, like, I can’t believe they allow a forum. I can’t believe they allow people to comment on your IMDb page. I mean, that’s so unfair. That’s so rude!

Be honest: have you ever written back to anybody?

No! I can’t handle it. I can’t even read the reviews. I have a glass stomach when it comes to all of that, and it took me awhile to realize it. “10 Items” got some great reviews…I mean, we got a rave in the New York Times!…but even shows that get great reviews, everybody has their opinion, and it’s hard, man. It’s hard for me. I just don’t have it in me. I know that sounds so lame, but it’s true. My wife just finally said, “Would you just stop reading them? Just don’t!” And she’s right.

Well, I was curious if, after playing J.D. Salinger on “Oliver Beene,” you ever heard from the real J.D. Salinger?

(Laughs) No, I never did. I can’t believe that’s still up there! It’s still playing somewhere, though, ’cause I still get checks every now and then for, like, $3.00. But, hey, I’ll take it! But, yeah, that was the reason I did it. I didn’t really know the show “Oliver Beene,” I’d never watched it, but they said, “You’ll be playing J.D. Salinger,” I said, “Hell, yeah, I’ll play J.D. Salinger!”

Just to be able to say you played J.D. Salinger, right?

Exactly! How could you turn that down?

I know you were a regular on “Jesse,” and I have to say that, if for no other reason, I loved that show because it had a fantastic theme song.

(Laughs) It did! And, you know, the lead singer…actually, I don’t know if it was the lead singer. Maybe it was the guy who produced it. But someone was related to Marta Kauffman. I think. There was some connection there, anyway, even if I can’t quite remember what it was. But, yeah, I agree that was a good song.

Did you enjoy the experience of doing that show? It seems like one of those series that got re-tooled every time you turned around.

Yeah. It was, like, every executive in a 10-mile radius had something to say about it. But I did really enjoy it. The money was in-CREDI-ble… (Laughs) …and, you know, it was an easy job. I just played a crazy, nutty brother. I didn’t even talk through the first season, which was awesome. I didn’t even have to do anything! But I made some really good friends. David DeLuise, who played my brother, he and I are still really good friends. So, yeah, it was a great experience. And Christina Applegate is really a sweetheart. A total sweetheart. She made it easy. When the star is cool, then it makes everybody else’s job easier.

And then you were in “The Sweetest Thing” with her, too, right? I don’t remember if you actually had any scenes with her, but…

Yeah, Roger Kumble, who directed “The Sweetest Thing,” we’ve known each other awhile, and he asked me, “Can you come in and drive a golf cart, and just improvise?” And I did. They had the crew all strapped onto the golf cart, and I crashed it. With the crew. It was not my fault. Roger said, “Keep driving, I will tell you when to stop.” So I did. I kept driving. But I couldn’t see! There were, like, three cameramen and a light guy on this golf cart, and I couldn’t see anything, so I’m just driving and playing the scene, and we crashed into a fence. But it was Roger’s fault. All Roger.

Sure it was.

(Laughs) I got blamed for it! It’s always the actor…

Lastly, I’m just curious about your connection with Noah Baumbach. Did you know him prior to “Kicking and Screaming,” or did you just end up in his circle as a result of doing that film? Because I know you’ve been in, like, three of his films.

Yeah, I met him right when he was writing “Kicking and Screaming,” ’cause he was living in Chicago at the time. And Carlos Jacott, who was also in the three films that I was in, was a friend of Noah’s, I believe from Vassar. They went to Vassar. And Carlos and I were in a crazy, weird improv show in Chicago called Ed. And Noah would come to those shows, and, you know, we all drank together and hung out. So, yeah, as his career rose, he kept hiring me, which was great. And then Carlos and I actually did a series of shorts with him called “Conrad &; Butler,” which were released on Criterion. It’s so funny, I still get people who come up to me and say, “I loved ‘Conrad & Butler’!” (Laughs) They were some crazy shorts. But he’s a good guy. A good man.

Actually, I did have one final question: in regards to “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” what was the experience of hosting that show like, and, if pressed, could you even still come up with the name of the celebrity who won?

Uh, okay… (Long pause) Chris Judd. Chris Judd won. He was a choreographer who had dated…oh, lord, what’s her name? J. Lo, that’s who it was. And, yeah, he won, I think because every woman in America felt bad for him that J. Lo had dumped him. (Laughs) But he was a very nice guy! That was the craziest show, man. It’s, like, they hired me to kind of be funny…obviously, ’cause that’s what I do, but, also, the British version is funny. And I swear to you, we were on the set, and…this was broadcasting live, but minutes before we were supposed to broadcast the first show, they got a note from Lloyd Braun – apparently, or this is what I heard, anyway – the president of ABC at the time, who said he wanted to change the tone of the show from being kind of winky and funny to gravitas. That’s the word that was used. And I have the earpiece in my ear, and they’re telling me this as they’re counting down, essentially, “Change everything to gravitas.” I’m, like, “What?!?”

“And…go!” (Laughs)

And I’m, like, I kind of know what ‘gravitas’ means, but it’s not a word you use a lot! So I was, like, “Jesus! Okay…” But, you know, it paid great, so, whatever, it paid for my house. And it was fun working live. That was really fun. ‘Cause people get so scared, man. Everybody’s sphincters shrink up to the size of needles, and they’re going, “Oh, my GOD!” And I kind of like that. I like the feeling, that sort of jumping-into-the-abyss scariness. It’s invigorating!

And having brought up sphincters, we might as well bring it back to “Jailbait” to close, right?

Yes!

What are your hopes for the show, now that it’s out there?

I’d love to shoot more. It was really fun. I think we have a great idea here. Personally, I think that show would do well on TV. I really do. Where, I don’t know. But I think this is the kind of thing that…well, obviously, I think there’s an audience for this, because people are out there watching it, you know? I know that it’s a little bit edgy… (Laughs) …but I think there’s a place for that kind of comedy. So that would be really cool, if some network had the balls to say, “Yeah, let’s do this!” That would be really fun, ’cause then we could really get into expanding the length of the episodes. That would be really fun. But if it just goes to another season of the web series, that, too, is really cool, because Sony and Crackle were really, really great to work with, and – like we discussed – you’ve got the freedom to just go out and do it. As a producer and writer, that freedom is just awesome.