[01/06/09 - 12:46 AM]
Interview: "10 Items Or Less" Star John Lehr
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

What do improvisation, groceries, turkey bowling and porn have in common? Believe it or not, they all play some kind of part in the popular situation comedy "10 Items or Less," the semi-improvised series that returns for its third season tonight on TBS. Co-creator, writer and actor John Lehr shared the secrets behind the Greens & Grains grocery store and his hidden talent for throwing turkeys.

The actors work free and clear of an actual script when shooting episodes of "10 Items or Less" and Lehr laid out how it works. "All the dialogue is improvised. All of it. There is a script that Nancy [Hower, co-creator-director-writer] and I write but that script is never shown to the actors. They never see it. The script is really a guidepost for all the department and the executives," he explained, adding, tongue in cheek, "it's basically a way to get the network to trust enough to give us money to shoot this thing." While the improve style has been popular on other series such as HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Lehr said they have a way of keeping things reigned in just enough to stay on track. "Obviously since the actors have never seen the script, they deviate it from the script immediately because they have no knowledge of it. But Nancy directs all the episodes and I'm in most of the scenes and since we know the script we can kind of guide it when need be... it's kind of like developing plays for a basketball team. We have a play but, hey, if there's an open shot, take it."

In tonight's season premiere, turkey bowling becomes an unexpected source of amusement and competition between owner/manager Leslie Pool (Lehr), Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert) and Carl (Bob Clendenin). The improv technique was utilized in the manner in which the sport is introduced in the episode. "Todd and Carl may not know what the scene is about," Lehr shared, "but we know to tell Todd, "Hey, at the end of the scene just grab this thing and throw it at these things" and it's the first time he's ever done it and that's really all the actor knows. If the 'script' is written right, it should all flow naturally. When it's not, then we know we screwed it up in the writing process."

Bowling frozen turkeys into pins (2-liter soda bottles in this case) became more than just a story point for Lehr. "Let me just say that it is a blast. I highly encourage you to sneak into your super market and roll some poultry. It's highly satisfying. We rigged all these pins to do these crazy shots and none of the rigging really worked so I'm proud to say that a lot of those strikes and spares were my own doing. I happen to be a very good turkey bowler it turns out, thank God." Lehr also offered some tips to successfully achieve the maximum score in your own turkey bowling game. "The biggest birds are easier to get strikes obviously so we were bowling twenty pounders."

The sitcom is not only highly improvised, it also shoots on location at an actual working California grocery store. That said, the real location setting did not get in the way of any turkey bowling whatsoever. "The store we shoot in is open for business while we shoot so there were people walking around shopping just watching these idiots bowling frozen turkeys. It was right around Thanksgiving when we shot this so people were totally saying 'What are they doing?'"

Another tidbit about "10 Items or Less" is that it is not the only production known for shooting in the California town of Reseda. Reseda is legendary for being the home to many adult entertainment productions. "We're the only non-porn shooting in Reseda," Lehr revealed, along with another advantage of shooting just far enough away from the hip and cool Hollywood/Burbank studio lots. "I highly recommend it if you ever produce your own show, produce it in Reseda because nobody wants to come to Reseda so none of the executives come to check us out."

Speaking of the TBS network, Lehr offered some insight into why, in his opinion, cable is a much better place to be when producing a sitcom compared to the networks. "I've had some experience with network and... they're top heavy. It's the classic story where there are just too many middlemen and TBS has been night and day to that. There are basically three people that we deal with. The President of the network is almost always aware of what we're asking for so it's not like we have to lobby different people to then represent our views to get it to 'the guy,' We literally get to talk to the guy and say 'hey, can we do this?' It's this lovely kind ´┐Żof middle ground. We're just thriving. We love working with them."

One of the cast additions this year is actress/comedienne Kim Coles, who plays rival grocery store owner Mercy P. Jones. Of Coles, Lehr beamed, "She's just great. You never know with this improv stuff how people are going to do because it's really high pressure and she totally delivered. We're really lucky to have her." Lehr said that Coles slid right into her role easily from the creative standpoint but also, "more importantly, which is really important to us, is to have an environment that isn't pretentious...that's the great thing is that she fits into that. Everyone is pretty low key which we work really hard to get to."

With any workplace sitcom, there has to be a dose of romance in the mix and "10 Items or Less" will not disappoint this coming season. "There's been an on-again/off-again thing with Ingrid [Kirsten Gronfield] and Leslie that pops up again. I think there's some beginning of sparks oddly between Kim Coles's character, Mercy and Leslie. There's something going on there. There is also Richard, our cashier, who's gay and involved in a romance this year." Lehr also revealed the object of two characters' affections are less than traditional. "Leslie and Carl hit on a couple of polygamist women in an episode," he offered, followed by a promise that viewers "won't feel gypped in [the romance] department, for sure."

Finally, Lehr explained why you may not see big name guest stars on "10 Items or Less." "The show is totally absurd, obviously, but it also has this ridiculously weird reality side to it so bringing on a star on the show would seem kind of weird because the show has this feeling that it could be shot in the Midwest." However, there is one special guest star that will be appearing this season and will at least appeal to fans of a certain sci-fi phenomenon "Jolene Blalock is in our 'Star Trek' episode. Blalock played the hot Vulcan on 'Star Trek: Enterprise' so she's our big guest star this year. She comes on and plays herself when Leslie throws an illegal 'Star Trek' convention in the store. Leslie basically commits fraud and gets her to be involved and she gets upset. It's our excuse to have a 'Star Trek' episode."

For your first look at the art of turkey bowling and anything else of a wacky nature that can go on in a grocery store, check out the season premiere of "10 Items or Less" tonight on TBS at 11:00/10:00c.

  [january 2009]  


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