How did I get a TV show?
Hi there blog reader. My name is John Lehr and I am the star of a yet-to-be-aired TV show called '10 Items or Less'. I just re-read that first sentence and laughed. It is laughable that this show came to be at all and now, after two years of struggling to get it on the air, here we are- days away. This show is a dream job for me: I executive produce, write andas you already know, act as well. This show really started 20 years ago when I was at Northwestern University outside Chicago where I discovered a thing called improv.
"You mean I can say anything I want?" I had grown up in Kansas and the idea that you could get on stage and say whatever hit your brain was a shock. It was love at first sight. After graduating I hooked up with a bunch of Second City grads, formed a group called 'Random Sample', and started doing bar gigs all over Chicago. But after a while, doing improv games in bars for $20 a night ran a little thin. Soon I was working with an amazing group of people in a theater company called ED, which helped to pioneer a style of improv that focused on relationships and characters as apposed to games and satire. It was in one of these shows I was discovered by a talent agent from Fox who flew me and my partner at the time out to Hollywood for a performance called a 'showcase' where every agent and executive in town shows up to check out the new meat. We did pretty well, got agents and worked as character actors. But I really wanted to do something that combined my acting skills and my writing skills. I really wanted to improvise. But, as one NBC executive told me, "Improv will never make it on TV. It's too inconsistent." And she was right. Except that she wasn't. At all. 'Who's Line is it Anyway?' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' changed that, didn't it? As I watched these shows, I liked what I saw and I wanted a chance.
I got my chance in the least likely of places. I did a one-scene role on an independent film directed by Nancy Hower. She asked me to improvise in the scene and loved it. She approached me a few days later to "shoot something on DV and see where it takes us." Now there are a lot of people in Hollywood with DV cameras and dreams. I had done a lot of projects where we would "shoot something on DV and see where it takes us." And it didn't take us anywhere. My wife, Jennifer, was not very supportive. "Please do something that pays, honey." But Nancy was tenacious and I finally agreed.
The minute I started working with her I was in love. We saw things eye to eye- our sense of humor matched perfectly and we laughed a lot while we worked. Over the next year we continued to shoot stuff on the weekends and this led to an independent film called 'Memron' which won the Slamdance Film Festival Audience award. Nancy directed, shot it, did the sound, edited iteverything. When she was cutting it, she turned to her friend Robert Hickey to produce and help with the story. After the success at Slamdance, the three of us met to see if we could take our style of comedy to TV.
We got together and worked out our pitch. We decided on a grocery store (it was perfect for improv because there are lots of nooks and crannies under one roof and it is evenly lit.) We mapped out the characters and story lines. We even snuck into grocery stores and shot some stuff on the fly- we'd get a couple of minutes before security kicked us out.
I sold a sitcom script to NBC Studios the previous year so we took our first meeting there. They loved it. Then we went to Sony. They loved it. Then we went to Fox. They loved it. We couldn't believe it. We were actually in a mini-Hollywood bidding war. Sony was the most enthusiastic. They wanted to shoot a pilot in house (called a presentation pilot). This is unusual, as most studios want to sell the pitch straight to the network so the network puts up the cash for the pilot. Sony really took a gamble on us.
We wrote the script for the presentation pilot. "What?" you say, "Script? I thought this was improv?" We see improv as a great way to generate hilarious dialogue and characters but it still needs writing to make the story work otherwise you end up with a bunch of gobbledygook. In a weird way, you actually have to write more for improv than you do for scripted, because the story can turn on a dime and you've got to be ready. You also have to write scenes that will work precisely for the actors you have in that scene. The piece has to be tailor made for them. It's kind of like being a basketball coach. You design really complex plays made for your team and then let them execute it. We wanted a show that put our actors in the best possible situation for their particular talents.
We cast the show and shot it in a grocery store in Glendale that was OPEN for business. Actual shoppers would walk into the scene and we would just improvise with them. It created a great energy and we ended up with a great pilot. Sony took the presentation pilot to TBS and they bought the show.
TBS had us rewrite and shoot a new pilot. They wanted to make certain changes to the cast and back story. When we finished, they tested the show and, after months of nail biting, the president of TBS called to say the show had been picked up for five episodes. We wrote, shot, and edited all five. And now it is time to air them. I hope you like what you see. I think they're funny as hell, but I may be a little biased.
I'll be adding to this blog throughout the run of the shows commenting on each show: some of the funny things that happened, some of the pitfalls, successes and a few secrets. Let me know what you think.
Enjoy '10 Items or Less' after almost three years of work, it's finally on the air!
check out the show at www.greensngrains.com