John Lehr’s hilarious turn as one of the original and most frequently appearing GEICO cavemen has been etched in our minds ever since the auto insurance company’s popular commercial series first hit airwaves in 2004. Alongside its quotable slogan — « GEICO: so easy, a caveman could do it. » — the well-known advertisements placed evolved Neanderthals, who are naturally offended by this punchline, within a contemporary setting. Readers may recall Lehr’s memorable performances in the early « Boom Mic Operator » and « Therapy » spots. However, underneath all that caveman makeup, prosthetics, and hair lies of one of the most famous and well-liked commercial actors you’d probably never recognize as one of GEICO’s best.
As an actor, writer, comedian, and producer, Lehr’s been hiding in plain sight in showbiz for over two decades, while cultivating an impressive, multi-faceted career in television, film, and theatre that goes far beyond the scope of GEICO’s popular commercials. We dug deep to reveal the truth about the man behind all that makeup and hair, and even connected with him for a chat in May 2019. The affable comedian gave us the inside scoop on everything from his current plethora of projects to fun anecdotes about his life and career, proving to be as kind, genuine, open, hilarious, and downright cool as one would hope.
So, what do you need to know about the real life of John Lehr? Well, he’s pretty easy on the eyes, for starters.
He set the bar high for other GEICO cavemen
John Lehr already had an impressive resume of commercial spots prior to scoring his GEICO caveman gig. In collaboration with the same advertising team, he promoted products from the likes of Pepsi and Tostitos early on in his career, according to his conversation with Interviewing Hollywood. However, the performer still can’t quite believe just how big of a pop culture phenomenon this particular series became. « I’m stunned, » Lehr told the website, adding, « I mean, it’s huge! My wife just recently googled GEICO caveman blogs, and it’s unbelievable. There’s a whole bunch of people out there who are fascinated with these commercials. »
We’re pretty sure Lehr’s own performance has something to do with that, as he undeniably set the bar high for future GEICO cavemen. « @JohnLehr is the ONLY caveman, » writer-director Justine Bateman tweeted in 2019. « All other cavemen just follow his standard. » For his part, Lehr thanked the insurance company on Twitter around that same time after a fan noted, « What do you know… your Geico caveman commercials are making another run. Good to see. »
A surprisingly perfect gig
After studying at Northwestern University, John Lehr got his start in improv comedy in Chicago, Ill. (via DanaRoc.com). Considering his comedic roots, performing as a GEICO caveman was a surprisingly fitting gig. « It’s the perfect job for somebody like me, a character actor, because I make a lot of money on these commercials and nobody knows it’s me, » he told Interviewing Hollywood. The comic added, « It kind of fit with my sense of humor, in that it’s kind of, you play it for real but it’s totally absurd, which is basically my cup of tea. And it worked out. » What’s the one downside to being a GEICO caveman? That prosthetic makeup. « It’s a little disconcerting to have two men touching your face for three hours or two, » Lehr admitted, but noted that overall, « [It’s] the easiest job. »
Joe Lawson, who co-created the commercial series, was inclined to agree with Lehr’s first point. « I love John Lehr in anything, » he told Esquire in 2007. « He’s just a brilliant actor and an amazing improvisational artist. With him, the script is just a jumping-off point, he always comes up with better dialogue. »
He’s been working steadily in showbiz
John Lehr began scoring on-screen work a decade before he found himself hidden beneath that infamous caveman makeup. After appearing on Friends and starring alongside Christina Applegate in the ill-fated sitcom Jesse during the ’90s, he and Applegate reunited in the 2002 rom-com The Sweetest Thing. The actor’s additional appearances on the big screen have included director Noah Baumbach’s films Kicking and Screaming, Highball, and Mr. Jealousy. However, he managed to mostly avoid ABC’s extremely short-lived Cavemen sitcom in the late 2000s.
« I did a small part in the pilot where I played the weatherman, just a really quick appearance, » Lehr told Channel Guide Magazine in 2008. Citing another gig at the time, he said, « They wanted me to be involved in it and I couldn’t. » After explaining that he supported the actors and creative team involved, the multi-talent added, « I hope the show makes it, but I don’t know. »
While Lehr continued to work steadily in the industry, his most successful and longest-running gigs have ultimately been through his own produced work … but more on that later.
His journey toward sobriety
After struggling with alcohol abuse and drug addiction, John Lehr has maintained his sobriety for over twenty years. As the comic told The A.V. Club, his long-held demons stemmed from deep insecurities and self-loathing. However, an arrest in 1996 forced him to change course. In 2003, Lehr recalled sitting in the back of a cop car while under the influence of LSD, during an interview with the Jewish Journal. « This kid just stopped and stared at me, and suddenly I saw myself through his eyes. I’d thought of myself as a guy who, yes, used drugs, but who also had talent and a career. But to this kid, I was just a criminal, » he said. « That was a very heavy moment for me. »
Since then, Lehr’s experiences with addiction have fueled some of his comedy work, including one-man shows like The Lehr Curse and Cold Sober Comedy. Regarding the former, Lehr told The New York Post in 2004, « I tell lots of stories about my days of drinking — which are hilarious! » When asked whether he kept any of this personal info on a need-to-know basis, the comedian quipped, « No, not that I can think of. »
He switched religions
A major part of John Lehr’s journey toward sobriety was his conversion to Judaism. Prior to marrying author Jennifer Lehr (née Schlosberg), his interest in the religion began with a desire to learn more about his soon-to-be wife’s faith. « My wife is Jewish, and her family, they’re conservative, » he told the KC Jewish Chronicle in 2009. « I knew I wanted to marry my wife when we were dating. » Noting that he « didn’t want to be the goofball goy » at family gatherings, Lehr said, « I wanted to know a little bit about what I was getting into. »
The multi-talent ended up taking conversion classes at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and later completed a Jewish meditation class. The latter experience, Lehr told the Jewish Journal, « Provided the first nanoseconds of relief I’d felt from my ‘sober alcoholic’ insanity. » Not long after, he was encouraged by his wife, therapist, and sponsor to convert. « I’m married, I’m sober, I believe in God and I’m a Jew, » Lehr told the publication. « And for the first time in my life, I’m happy. »
He hosted I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!
According to his 2013 interview with Zocalo Public Square, John Lehr had set his sights on Saturday Night Live early on in his career. However, his experience with live television went a little differently than originally planned. In 2003, the actor hosted I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, an ill-fated ABC reality TV show starring D-list celebs.
While calling it « one of the worst reality shows ever to be broadcast into people’s living rooms, » Lehr told Interviewing Hollywood that there was one major perk. « It was primetime, 15 nights in a row, during sweeps — and it was live, » he said, adding, « I had never done live television … the fear is such a rush. I mean, it was unlike any experience I’ve ever had in my life. » As for why « the show itself was terrible, » Lehr placed part of the blame on a last-minute change. « They hired me to be funny, » he said, but explained that he was told to be « very serious » and « speak with gravitas » literally seconds before going live on-air. « I think if I had the job now, » he admitted, « I probably wouldn’t have taken the note. »
He’s written and produced his own material
For a long time, John Lehr struggled to truly find his footing in showbiz. « I’m like an odd duck, I think, » he told Interviewing Hollywood. As a stand-up comedian whose material is based in storytelling, and as an actor who’d rather improvise than follow a script, Lehr explained that he found himself « in the in-between world. » This turned out to be an issue when it came to fitting in and finding work. « I’ve kind of had to forge my own way, » he continued, saying that he eventually branched out on his own to combine his acting and writing talents on both stage and screen. He added, « I love producing. It’s a big part of who I am. »
Lehr’s first solo effort in this vein was a one-man show Off-Broadway called The Lehr Curse (via Playbill), which changed the course of his career in 2004. « I just started to get a taste of the fact that I had something … specific to say to an audience, » the actor-writer-producer told Interviewing Hollywood. « [And] that it was okay for me to be out front, to be the lead. »
Howler Monkey Productions
After appearing in Nancy Hower’s mockumentary TV movie Memron in 2004, John Lehr teamed up with the writer-director to create Howler Monkey Productions. Their production company allowed the duo to write and produce their own improv-based works in film and television, including the TBS workplace comedy 10 Items or Less (2006-2009) and the 2011 Crackle series Jailbait, both of which starred Lehr himself. However, the culmination of these writing, producing, acting, and improvisational efforts was the popular, yet unfortunately short-lived Quick Draw. This Western comedy series, which ran for two seasons on Hulu beginning in 2013, saw Lehr star as a Harvard graduate-turned-sheriff named Henry Hoyle in 1875 Kansas.
« My goal all along is to do theater on TV, to do something powerful and true to a smaller audience who loves it, » Lehr told Zocalo Public Square. Having explained to DanaRoc.com that he was always on the look-out for fostering « real and authentic » experiences in his life and career, he noted that on a smaller show, « I can help to create the environment that I have always wanted to work in. »
He’s sharing the inside scoop
In May 2019, Nicki Swift connected with John Lehr for a interview, and we got right down to business asking the question on everyone’s minds: In a battle between commercial icons, who would win in a fight between Flo from Progressive, Allstate’s Mayhem guy, and the GEICO cavemen?
« Well, we gotta go with the cavemen! » Lehr naturally replied. « I mean, I love both of the other two — I think they’re all three pretty amazing campaigns … but I’m a caveman. I can’t go against my team! » Noting that « the other two are winners, and we’re kind of losers, » the comic went on to explain, « We’re under-appreciated, we’re metrosexual … we’re kind of depressed or beaten down. I mean, you gotta go with them! » We’re 100 percent with Lehr on this one: when in doubt, always root for the underdog.
It doesn’t always pay to meet your heroes
With a career spanning nearly three decades, John Lehr’s rubbed shoulders with some pretty famous faces. What’s his best celebrity encounter? In the early ’90s, Lehr worked as a production assistant for the MTV Video Music Awards. « I was backstage and my boss said, ‘John, just stand here and hold these video tapes. Someone will come and get them,' » he told Nicki Swift, explaining that he was « totally starstruck » by the music industry’s best — including rock band Aerosmith. Growing up as an admitted metalhead, he continued, « My brain just exploded … I just, without thinking, went down on one knee, like a knight bowing to the gods. And Steven Tyler comes up to me and just kind of pats me on the shoulder like, ‘Rise, young knight. Rise!’ And I did, holding my video tapes, and he looked at me for a sec and kept going. »
This moment was « the best, » Lehr recalled. But sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to meet certain stars in real life. His worst experience involved none other than actress Angelina Jolie. The two briefly met at a Halloween party she threw at her Los Angeles mansion. « I have never done this … but she was just so gorgeous, I found myself doing the classic, cartoonish [gibberish sounds], » Lehr told us. While it was « totally humiliating, » the actress just smiled like « she’d had that happen to her a lot. » We believe it!
Geez, what can’t this guy do?
John Lehr is clearly a man of many talents. Any Hollywood hopeful would probably kill for even a fraction of his seemingly endless résumé … but there’s one hidden talent we’ve yet to touch on.
« I am an excellent juggler, » Lehr told Nicki Swift, explaining that this impressive skill has even been showcased on screen. « It’s popped up in a few things: I’ve done it in an episode of [10 Items or Less], I did it in an episode of Quick Draw. I am a really, really good juggler. » With specialties including club passing and juggling fire torches, Lehr went on to reveal that he used to make « some good coin » while busking as a juggler early on in his career. But just how good is he?
While busking at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe during his college days, our guy marveled street audiences so much that he made an astounding £2,000 in just one day. To celebrate, he « drank [his] way from London to Paris, hitchhiking and partying. » You know, as you do when you earn roughly $2,600 while juggling. Lehr added, « Oh my God, it was so much fun. »
John Stands Up
In 2018, John Lehr returned to the world of stand-up for the first time in 15 years. As a natural-born improviser, he made the unique decision to combine improv and storytelling with this traditionally written-out and memorized comedic style, and highlighted this journey in his John Stands Up docuseries. « I had these thoughts in my brain and I wanted to communicate to people directly and in a live format, » he told Nicki Swift, explaining that he missed the connection he’d made with audiences while doing solo shows in the early 2000s. « The problem as a stand-up comedian is my default is to improvise … It’s just the way I’m wired, » Lehr continued, adding, « Even if I’m planning something, when I go up there, I will immediately go off book. »
Still, being a master at improv has served Lehr well both on stage and off, particularly when asked to do last-minute speeches, including as a best man. « I can really get up there and pull that kind of stuff off, which is an amazing thing, » he said. « That really comes in handy. » However, this impressive skill is a double-edged sword that he’s attributed to his alcoholism and struggle with mental illness, saying, « Somehow there’s a thinking switch that just gets shut off. It’s like a dark embrace of the abyss [and] fear, just jumping into it … It serves me, but there’s a darkness to it. »
Let’s make a deal … to not have regrets
Life in the limelight sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Despite living out their dreams amid the fame and fortune of Tinseltown, there’s a lot to rightfully hate about being a celeb, whether it’s watching themselves on screen, the roles that made them household names, or being famous in and of itself. Luckily for John Lehr, regret hasn’t played a major part in his long, successful, and multi-faceted career. In fact, the only thing that came to mind when we asked was his decision to opt out of hosting the popular daytime game show, Let’s Make a Deal, in 2009 — a lucrative gig that ultimately went to fellow comedian Wayne Brady.
« I turned it down, because 10 Items or Less had just been cancelled and [collaborator Nancy Hower and I] wanted to see what we could do next, » Lehr told Nicki Swift. Explaining that he was trying to avoid being « painted into a corner, » he added, « Looking back, I think I could’ve done it and still have been a niche comedian doing these improv-based shows » like JailBait and Quick Draw. « But man, it was a lot of money. » That said, Lehr continued, « I could say 90 percent of the stuff that I’ve put out there, I’m really proud of. » He attributed this showbiz rarity to his many hats, saying, « I’m so grateful for that [freedom] … As an artist, what more can you ask for? »
He’s guiding the next generation of entertainers
In the age of digital and social media, aspiring performers have honed their multi-hyphenated skills by creating their own content on various mediums like YouTube. This type of « nutball of a career » trajectory — Lehr’s words, not ours — is one he himself cultivated years before it became the latest showbiz trend. « My thing has always been, ‘I want to produce my own stuff and be in it.’ And it’s really, really hard to do, but I didn’t know any better, » he told Nicki Swift. « You don’t make as much money maybe, or it’s not as mainstream because you’re not going down the straight and narrow Hollywood path, but it’s so gratifying. And it’s just who I am. »
Whenever he isn’t acting, writing, or producing himself, this multi-talent likes to share his wealth of knowledge as an industry vet by giving lectures and one-on-one coaching lessons to Hollywood hopefuls. Lehr’s biggest piece of advice to up-and-comers? « Start shooting now, » he said. « You learn so much about what is and isn’t possible. » The comedian went on to emphasize the importance of a creative partnership, calling his own with longtime collaborator Nancy Hower « absolutely crucial on so many levels. » Lehr believes that artists who pigeonhole themselves into one role « do themselves a disservice, » because « they really just don’t understand how collaborative this business always has been … You really need to know the whole process. »
He’s a family man
After John and Jennifer Lehr tied the knot in the early 2000s, the couple welcomed two kiddos into the world, daughter Jules (born in 2006) and son Hudson (born in 2008) (via People). While opening up about fatherhood in 2010, the proud dad jokingly told Macaroni Kid, « I am constantly stunned that I have parented them well enough to keep them alive this long. » However, it turns out his training in comedy has come in handy, as he added, « I love the look of delight on my kids’ faces when I deliver ‘Chim Chimney’ in my over-the-top cockney accent. » Talk about #DadGoals.
As for married life, the Lehrs seem to share a perfect union — but it took years of hard work to foster that connection. « We went to two and a half years of couple’s therapy before we got married, » Jennifer Lehr told DanaRoc.com in 2006. « I love that we did that. We were really miserable and yet, we stuck it out and did the work. » However, it sounds like it was well worth the effort. She added, « Now I feel like we are one of the, if not the, happiest couples I know, in terms of a relationship. »
He’s keeping busy
John Lehr’s come a long way since donning hours-worth of makeup and prosthetics as a GEICO caveman, and he’s as busy as ever balancing his acting, writing, and producing efforts through Howler Monkey Productions. While actively working toward bringing Quick Draw to the big screen, Lehr told Nicki Swift that he and Nancy Hower have struck two as-of-yet-unannounced development deals with a major cable network and a multi-media company.
Adding to his plate, Lehr announced the John Lehr Living Room Tour in May 2019, in which he’ll « perform in living rooms for free » while his hosts provide dinner. He’ll also reboot his Cold Sober Comedy solo show in a lecture format, beginning in Boston, Mass. that July. « We’re gonna take the history of alcoholism, but in a funny way, » he told us. « I’m gonna tell outrageous stories, but I’m gonna slip in some of the things that I’ve learned along the way that got me sober. » The Gen Xer will also team up with Millennial comedian-actress Chase O’Donnell to launch Generation Gab, a hilarious, engaging podcast that’s « brought to you by a fun dad and recent grad. »
« That’s the way I’ve kind of done everything: Just go with the flow of life, where things are leading you, » Lehr explained. « That doesn’t mean you don’t try hard and work, but you also are just kind of opened up to, ‘Where am I being led right now?' » We can’t wait to see where this attitude takes him next!