As Geico’s spokesperson, John Lehr played the most highly evolved caveman in the history of humanity. He was known for his metrosexual style, sensitive nature, and pained response to the word “Neanderthal.” Business Insider called him one of the greatest, most recognizable brand icons of all time.
After infusing the prehistoric spokesman with unforgettable personality, John co-created and starred in QuickDraw (Hulu) and 10 Items or Less (TBS), the groundbreaking improvised sitcom. He appeared on Friends and in NBC’s Jesse opposite Christina Applegate. John’s big screen appearances include roles in The Sweetest Thing, and in three Noah Baumbach films, Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, and Highball. He has hosted News Weasels for E!, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! for ABC, CBS’ special Clash of the Commercials with co-host Heidi Klum, and John Lehr’s Movie Club for TBS.
As the Caveman, John trash-talked with Billie Jean King, attended therapy with Talia Shire and played Scrabble with NFL linebacker Brian Orakpo. You might even call him a paleomath.
John now brings a different kind of enlightenment to the world. On Thursday, May 26, he will be the keynote speaker at the Gateway Foundation’s luncheon “Illuminating Wellness: The Lighter Side of Addiction Recovery” at the Chicago History Museum. A recovering alcohol and drug addict, John has been sober for twenty-six years and is dedicated to helping others navigate sobriety. At the Gateway Foundation event, he’ll reveal what he means by “cold sober comedy” and why it’s a critical piece of the recovery process.
Founded in 1968, the Gateway Foundation is the largest nonprofit treatment center in the country specializing in substance use disorders. Gateway’s sixteen treatment centers in Illinois serve clients in every stage of recovery. In its fifty year history, the Gateway Foundation has assisted over one million patients by creating personalized plans to treat the underlying causes of addiction.
John kindly spoke with me by phone about how the Chicago improv scene launched his career and his r-evolutionary approach to comedy and sobriety.
STARTING OUT IN CHICAGO
Teme: How did you first come to Chicago?
John: I grew up in Kansas. I got into Northwestern thanks to a high school teacher who encouraged me. I discovered many things at college, but also discovered improv, and I fell in love with it – the idea that you could say anything on stage, or almost anything! So when I graduated Northwestern, I did improv shows at night and taught elementary school during the day at Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park.
I ended up getting discovered by a talent scout from Fox who came to a show at the Organic Theater and asked us if we’d like to do it out in California. That led to an agent and a manager and a holding deal with NBC, which was where they give you money to not do anything, which was unbelievable.
Unfortunately, my drinking and drug abuse got worse and worse while I was in Los Angeles, which culminated in an arrest and I spent the night in jail. That led to my first day of sobriety. That was twenty-six years ago and here I am. Still in LA, but sober and making a living writing and producing, and then doing comedy in lovely places like Chicago.
A CAVEMAN IS BORN
Teme: How did you go from improv to becoming the GEICO Caveman?
John: I was in LA and sober at this point. I was called into an audition for this metrosexual caveman character, and I thought, “Huh, okay.” I didn’t think much about it. Went in, did it. They let me improvise. I think that’s what got me the job. It was really fascinating and fun and paid my bills.
Teme: How did the transformation happen?
John: I would be in makeup around three hours. My legs needed to be hairy and my chest and my arms, and that would take longer. But, three hours was about the average, so not terrible. I just lay there and let them glue stuff on me. It doesn’t bother me. I mean, after about eight hours, all you’re thinking about is, “Let’s get it off!” It’s a weird experience. You have to go to a zen kind of place.
The only part of me that was me were my eyes. Everything else is not me. It’s the greatest job ever, because you get to be a spokesperson for a product, but nobody knows it’s you, so you don’t get pigeon-holed. I ended up shooting over twenty-five national spots, which is just unheard of. It was just this phenomenon.
It led to other things. I starred in two shows, one on TBS and one on Hulu, and ended up being on a show on NBC with Christina Applegate. Around that time, I learned I could write, too. I hadn’t really realized that I could write good dialogue, so that was a door opener for me. I’m a Jack of all trades, really. I just did a song competition show on Fox called I Can See Your Voice. The Caveman was invited to come on and sing, and I did. It was really fun.
Teme: The Caveman is so relatable! From him, I could see that you have a gift for connecting with people. What are the secrets to connecting with an audience? Did Chicago comedy inform that talent, also?
John: Absolutely. Chicago is 100% responsible for anything I’ve gotten out here. As far as the Caveman goes, in terms of relating to people, the best thing about him is that he’s proud. He’s flawed and self-deprecating. Unless he’s talking about GEICO, of course, then he’s offended. But there’s something so metrosexual and open about him. He’s in touch with his feminine side. He’s just a sweet guy that happens to look the way he looks. When he is made fun of, he wants to stand up for himself. I think that all makes him a guy that people can relate to.
Teme: Of all the Geico spots, did you have a favorite?
John: Well, I got to meet a lot of people. I did some Super Bowl spots with Phil Simms, and he gave me tickets to the Super Bowl which was unreal. Just the nicest guy. Probably the person I was most impressed with was Billie Jean King. It was an uncomfortable shoot, because I was wearing super tight short shorts. They had leg hair all the way up my legs and it was hot. It was really uncomfortable. But man, is she impressive.
John: I did a spot with Brian Orakpo who was a football linebacker. He made a request to do it because he was such a fan. Same with Talia Shire, meanwhile I was like, “I’m a huge Rocky and Godfather fan!” She was amazing. She played the shrink. She was just a sweetheart. You know what the thing is, though, when you’re around famous people? They’re taken with the GEICO Caveman!
The Caveman was invited to the Oscars and I went to the after parties. That’s where the real VIPs are. I walked in and there were A-list stars pushing each other out of the way to take a picture with the GEICO Caveman. That was just surreal – like Oscar award winner Jon Voight literally pushing people out of the way to get a picture with me.
FROM CAVEMAN TO CREATOR
Teme: I love the TV series that you’ve created and written! They take place in interesting and diverse places. What characteristics do you look for in a setting? What about those different settings inspires you?
John: That’s a great question. I definitely push away from anything that’s too precious or narrow. My comedy is niche and a little bit cultish, but the characters and the place are meant to reach as wide an audience as possible, so that’s the big concern of mine. With each setting, there have been different things that have drawn me to it. 10 Items or Less was in a grocery store. Honestly, the biggest reason was that it was well lit.
We were improvising, so we were using three cameras on location which wasn’t really being done at that time. We were concerned that lighting was going to be a real problem. We wanted something that was evenly and broadly lit. That was the big selling point. But I also love the idea of the grocery store, because you have the cast, but you also have customers coming in. When we shot that show, we couldn’t afford to shut the grocery store down, so we shot while the grocery store was open for business. A lot of the customers that you see in the show are actual customers that were shopping at the time. It was really fun. We got to be friends with the real crew of the grocery store.
John: I was drawn to the western Quick Draw on Hulu because I’m from Kansas. I grew up with all of that stuff. I learned along the way that if you have super high stakes, comedy can play against that. I love to focus on miscommunication and misunderstanding. When you put mundane human issues in a setting that makes it even more awkward, it’s just so much fun.
COLD SOBER COMEDY
Teme: In addition to all the cool comedy work that you do, how did you decide to also help others with sobriety?
John: When I got sober, I was taught that the way to stay sober is to help others. It worked. I’ve been involved in many parts of recovery throughout my sobriety. I’ve always been very open and honest about it. I’ve got a chance to live two lives. I don’t regret my previous life. I’m certainly glad that it ended and I survived, but it gives me an amazing perspective.
I’m directly involved in helping individual people in recovery, and I’m on the board of a couple of not-for-profits. I have some great stories of when I was drinking and using that are just outrageous and terrifying, but funny if presented properly.
I also have a lot to talk about from after I got sober. In fact, that’s almost more interesting to me, because the disease doesn’t really go away. It just transforms into something else. In a weird way, it’s easier to get sober than it is to stay sober. I focused on that in my comedy, and then I fell into doing charity events and things like that for different groups. There’s no one way to get sober. There are different approaches and there are people who really care, like the people at Gateway, which is amazing to observe and be a part of.
Teme: When you say that the disease transforms into something else, what do you mean?
John: For me, the core of the disease is being selfish – only focused on me. It can be in a self-aggrandizing way like, “I’m amazing!” More often, it’s about beating myself up, but that’s still me focused on me.
The only time I was able to escape that was when I was performing. For some reason, I’m wired in a way to want to entertain the crowd and it’s not for me. I know that sounds weird, but I’ve never been somebody who basked in the glory of it. It’s always been about trying to communicate something to somebody else. But in my real life, I couldn’t do it at all. It was all about me. Fortunately, through the people I met in recovery, I was taught that the treatment for self-obsession is other-obsession, and so I was taught how to practice that and deepen that. That’s the meaning of life for me.
Teme: I’d love to hear more about that, though if you’ll be talking about it at Gateway, I don’t want to ask you to give too much away.
John: I will talk about it at Gateway, so I won’t go too far into it, but my drug abuse and alcohol abuse story ends with me getting arrested on LSD and spending the night in the county jail in Ventura county, which I don’t recommend to anyone. It was a crazy, horrid night. This wasn’t my first run in with the law, and my lawyer was like, “You’re going to go to jail.” He was thinking three to five years, and so I was scared out of my mind. He said, “Look, the only thing you can do is show up to court looking as clean and sober as possible.”
I reached out to a friend and got into some recovery support, and it was amazing, people trying to save their lives, and I’m so uncomfortable … so uncomfortable. I remember a friend of mine, Lauren (she’s not an alcoholic), saying, “Why don’t you go down to Venice Beach and meditate?” I didn’t know what that meant, but I went down to Venice Beach. I sat in the sand and meditated for three seconds, and then went into a tattoo parlor and got my nipple pierced. That should give you a sense of how crazy I was. This was sober. This was not under the influence.
You can apologize to people for stuff you did while you were using. For the most part, people will accept that apology. But when you’re not using, you don’t have any excuse at all. You’re just a jerk.
Teme: How do you define “cold, sober comedy”? I find sometimes as stresses add up, my sense of humor declines and that’s when it’s hardest to find comedy.
John: When things are the darkest and when you’re the most stressed, that’s when it’s most needed. That’s why it saddens me to see the state of comedy right now. We’re all in need of laughter, but we’re so stressed out that we’re getting up and slapping people or tackling people. We’re so PC, or we’re so non-PC, that we can’t find any ground to have fun. Give us the latitude to do what we do. We got to be able to laugh at ourselves or we’re screwed.
One of the things that reaches people who are alcoholics and drug addicts is dark humor. For some reason, when things are so bad, if you point that out and laugh at it, it’s so freeing. Cold sober comedy is crucial to recovery. It’s not just a side show to distract you.
I’ll give you an example. This was a long time ago, but it stuck with me. I was in the shower, and I’m “arguing” with the head of Sony for wanting to fire me from this job. That had happened like ten years ago from then, but here I am, naked in the shower, arguing out loud with somebody who’s not there. I noticed myself doing this and I laughed at myself. When I did, it went away. It just disappeared.
This notion of being able to observe ourselves with compassion and laughter has been really crucial to me. That part of us that can observe our lower selves is the key to not only getting sober, but of being able to be of real use in the world.
Teme: That’s profound. I think what you just said is the essence of why comedy is actually a holy calling. Comedy can help transcend the stresses and pressures that come at you which could otherwise really erode one’s soul. But if you can laugh and look at it with the perspective you just described, I think it literally helps you rise above and move on.
John: Yes, exactly. A part of you is observing. Laughing at that part of you, laughing with kindness. We’re sentient beings who are aware of being aware, and that makes us special. That’s what we all share. That’s where my spiritual connection comes from. It’s so hard to talk about this stuff without sounding like a nut job, but I believe that’s where you’re holding hands with God.
Teme: That’s what I think, too. I’ve been in comedy shows more spiritual than any religious service because of the way people connect while laughing and feeling joy.
John: Yes. Real comedians are people who can feel that and know what the audience needs. In order to get laughter, you really have to connect in a way that I don’t think you do when you’re “performing.” I love performing. I love scripting stuff. I love doing improv, and playing characters, but there’s something about, hey, this is me, and you’re you. I’m talking to you to try to get you to make this physical, guttural thing called a laugh. The only way to do that is by touching you in a way where we identify with each other.
Teme: What do you want to say to people who are struggling with addiction to help them keep going?
John: Don’t believe what your brain is telling you. It’s not true. It’s wrong and it’s not your friend. Don’t listen to yourself. That is a hard thing to do.
Teme: What’s the best way for someone to be a friend to someone who’s struggling?
John: I just had somebody call me today. If it’s a husband or a wife, and they have kids, I’m like, “Take care of yourself first.” Until they realize that they can’t fix themselves, you just got to get out of the way so that you don’t get pulled down too. God, it’s so hard. There are support groups for families and friends. You really got to get help because they’re unwell. You are not going to be able to convince them to stop, and that’s hard to swallow. You need professionals. Even then, at some point, the alcoholic or drug addict has to want it.
Teme: For anyone who’s fortunate enough to attend your talk at the Gateway Foundation’s event, what will they come away with?
John: I want them to have a good time and accept the gravitas of what we’re about, but also, to be able to have some kindred spiriting. Gateway has been around for a long time and they know what they’re doing. I’m thrilled to be a part of it and I can’t wait to get back to Chicago.
John Lehr emcees and performs at the Gateway Foundation’s “Illuminating Wellness” Luncheon on Thursday, May 26, 2022 at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., Chicago. Register here.
A limited number of livestream tickets are also available.
More about John Lehr at johnlehr.com.