Those of you who follow The Three Strike Rule know what a big fan I am of the TBS comedy, 10 Items or Less Thanks to my fellow Popdoser, Will, I had the opportunity to speak with John Lehr, the star and co-creator of — not to mention one of the producers and writers for — 10 Items or Less Needless to say, the guy has his cart full. The show had wrapped its second season before the writers strike began, and John was just about to leave on a well-deserved vacation. He was in New York doing publicity for the show when I caught up with him.
10 Items or Less is an improv-based half-hour ensemble comedy. Lehr stars as Leslie Pool, who has inherited his father’s Ohio grocery store, the Green & Grains. Determined to carry on his father’s legacy, despite knowing little about the grocery business, Pool oversees a crew of misfits while dealing with a competitive chain across the street.
The genesis for 10 Items or Less came out of an independent film Lehr starred in and co-produced, Memron. That film, which was an improv comedy, was co-written by Robert Hickey and Nancy Hower, who also directed. According to Lehr, these three decided that they “would like to do more of that kind of humor (improv). It felt like it was meant for TV.” They developed 10 Items or Less and pitched the idea to Sony, who prepared to shop it around. The first network they approached was TBS. The former Superstation was changing its image and starting to produce new, original comedies. Lehr was excited about finding a home on the cable channel. He said, “I grew up watching Superstation and it felt like our show would be a perfect fit. TBS is aimed at the whole country, not just New York and Los Angeles, and our show takes place in the Midwest. This seemed like a perfect fit.”
After the show was picked up, the producers underwent a lengthy, “hardcore” casting process. Although past colleagues like Bob Clendenin and Christopher Liam Moore were hired, the rest of the talented actors came from Sony casting. Lehr said, “It’s hard to find the kind of improv we were looking for. We didn’t want sketch-based improv; we were looking for actors who could play the situations we threw at them.” After casting was completed, the entire cast went through a workshop process. Each actor became heavily involved with creating and evolving their character. They were even asked to fill out actual store job applications, to come up with their characters’ names and pasts. The remainder of the talented cast includes Roberta Valderrama, Greg Davis Jr., Kirsten Gronfield, Chris Payne Gilbert and Jennifer Elise Cox.
Each episode begins with Lehr, Hickey and Hower getting together and writing a detailed, 20-page outline that contains no dialogue. The completed outline provides the story and location slugs. The idea is always to create a very strong narrative/story to start from as they go into production. However, none of the actors sees the script. They come to the set and are guided by Hower (who directs all of the episodes). “She does an amazing job giving objectives in the scene,” Lehr told me. And because his character, Leslie, is in almost every scene, Lehr is always around to help keep the improv and story moving forward. He described himself and Hower as “little basketball coaches” for the way they operate on set. It helps that the cast is tight and that everyone understands that they’re there to entertain, not change the world. “No one takes the work too seriously,” Lehr stated, “the idea is to have fun.” Still, the actors are directed to “play the situations for real” and not as if the show were some sketch comedy-based show. That reality includes shooting each episode in an actual grocery store in the Los Angeles area. “The store is open for business,” he said. “The customers (extras) are real. They just walk into the shot. They don’t care.”
Lehr has been very happy with TBS. “(They) have an incredible ability to get the word out.” When I asked about the gap between season one (which aired in the summer of ’06) and season two (which premiered in January of this year), Lehr told me that “actually we’re pretty happy to have moved into the Tuesday slot and that we premiered in January.” The move appears to have worked. So far the ratings are up for 10 Items or Less, which bodes well for another season. Although Sony (the production company) would like to eventually release a DVD box of both seasons, there are no immediate plans. In the meantime, you can see new episodes of 10 Items or Less every Tuesday night at 11:00 pm (ET), or online at TBS.com, where episodes from both seasons are streaming.