John Lehr barely left our screens in the mid-2000s thanks to his humorous role in a series of high-profile commercials. But few would ever have recognized him walking down the street at the time. That’s because the stand-up comedian had been transformed into an entirely different person – or, more accurately, an entirely different species. Yes, Lehr appeared in the famous GEICO insurance ads as an intelligent – and often offended – caveman.
But it turns out that there’s more to Lehr’s talents than yelling “Not cool” while dressed from head to toe in hair. Over the years, in fact, the actor has co-created numerous TV comedies. And outside of his hirsute costume, he’s actually rather handsome, too. Here’s a look at Lehr’s career and the TV ads that helped to take it forward.
Born in the Kansas city of Overland Park in 1965, Lehr initially pursued a career in education. Yes, while studying at Northwestern University, he landed a substitute teacher job – meaning his life could have gone in a very different direction. At the same time, the future commercial star developed a passion for improv, regularly performing with the university comedy troupe Mee-Ow. And while after graduation Lehr took a full-time teaching position at an elementary school, that wasn’t to last.
Ultimately, Lehr’s career started to lean more towards acting, starting with a number of bit-part roles on television. His first notable screen credit came in 1994, when he appeared in The New Adventures of Superman. Then, a year later, he showed up as Louis in Noah Baumbach’s first directorial feature, Kicking and Screaming. And in 1996 he even made a brief appearance in Friends episode “The One with the Flashback.”
Yet while the big time may seem to have beckoned for Lehr in 1998 when he appeared as John Warner, Jr. in NBC sitcom Jesse, his character was sadly written out after just one season. Interestingly, though, Lehr once again shared the screen with Jesse’s Christina Applegate when he played golfing cart driver Ralph in 2002 rom-com The Sweetest Thing.
Later in 2003, Lehr also became the host of the U.S. version of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here. The ABC reality TV show was short-lived, however, with even Lehr admitting that he wasn’t a fan. Shockingly, the actor would go so far as to brand the series as one of the worst “ever to be broadcast into people’s living rooms.”
But Lehr seemed to suggest that working on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here did have its positives. He told Interviewing Hollywood of the show, “It was primetime, 15 nights in a row, during sweeps and it was live… The fear is such a rush. I mean, it was unlike any experience I’ve ever had in my life.” And the failure of the series certainly didn’t put a stop to Lehr’s career. After taking a minor role in thriller They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?, he took center stage in obscure comedy Humanoid. In 2004, moreover, Lehr landed the role that would pretty much see him grace screens on a daily basis.
Yet unfortunately for Lehr, even his nearest and dearest would have struggled to recognize him playing the part in question – not least because he was covered head to toe in hair. Yes, Lehr was the first actor to become the caveman in the commercials for auto insurance firm GEICO. It wasn’t the first comical advert that the company had produced, either.
GEICO, which stands for the Government Employees Insurance Company, is second only to State Farm as America’s leading vehicle insurer. In fact, by 2017 more than 15 million people had taken out policies on over 24 million vehicles with the firm. But while insurance is hardly thrilling in itself, GEICO has become renowned for taking such essentially dry subject matter and making it entertaining through advertising.
The company first caught attention in 1999 with a series of 15-second commercials animated by Oscar nominee Bill Plympton. Typically, these ads revolved around a little man getting hurt by an object – most notably a cannonball – after letting his curiosity get the better of him. There was a witty tagline, too: “We all do dumb things. Paying too much for car insurance doesn’t have to be one of them.”
And, famously, in 1999 GEICO introduced its mascot – a 7’ 8” tall gecko – to the world, with Kelsey Grammer providing the original voice for the animated reptile. Humorously, the firm’s ads at the time showed the gecko getting annoyed at being constantly mistaken for the insurance company. One of the commercials, for example, features the character shouting “Stop calling me” after climbing on to a podium to vent his frustrations.
Since making his debut, moreover, the GEICO gecko has starred in a total of over 150 different ads. He’s become somewhat of a star in his own right, too, being interviewed by none other than Hillary Clinton – then U.S. Secretary of State – in 2013. However, Grammer was eventually swapped for British actor Jake Wood, who introduced a Cockney accent to the character.
And GEICO continued its anthropomorphic animal theme in 2010 when it launched a new campaign starring a talking pig. Maxwell was initially based on the nursery rhyme pig who cries “wee, wee, wee,” all the way home. But as his popularity grew, he also became a GEICO know-it-all, constantly providing the public with information about the company’s products. Bizarrely, though, that wasn’t the only thing for which the pig would become known.
You see, GEICO was once accused of promoting bestiality following an advert involving Maxwell and a woman in a car. In particular, One Million Moms claimed that the ad inferred the woman wanted to sleep with Maxwell. That wasn’t all, either; members of the conservative group also hit out at the GEICO gecko for apparently flirting with a bridesmaid in another ad. Yet the criticism didn’t stop GEICO from playing around with its ad campaigns.
Most notably, in a series of memorable adverts, the company subverted audience expectations by initially teasing something else entirely – an exercise workout, say, or a nature show. There was also a reality TV spoof in which participants resided in a tiny house.
To add to this, GEICO sponsored NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Mike Wallace’s number 7 car in the 2000s. And in a series of related ads, a youngster claims that the driver will be instantly forgotten in lieu of the deal. Yes, the bad-tempered boy, who claims to be Wallace’s relative, says, “When people see Mike Wallace and the GEICO number 7 doing well, they’ll think of saving a bunch of money on car insurance. But when they see me, they’ll say, ‘There goes Loren Wallace – the greatest thing to ever climb into a race car.’”
And in 2007 GEICO launched another celebrity-led campaign – only this time the famous faces were entirely fictional. The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jed Clampett claimed to have his 1923 Oldsmobile truck insured by the firm, for instance, while Fred Flintstone’s Flintmobile and Cabbage Patch Kid Ben Winkler’s Plymouth Reliant were said to be similarly covered.
But one of GEICO’s most popular campaigns involved actor Mike McGlone posing an important question: “Could switching to GEICO really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance?” In the ads, McGlone shows that he was being entirely rhetorical by following it up with a query such as, “Does Elmer Fudd have trouble with the letter R?”
Then there’s the series of commercials that see beloved children’s nursery rhymes transformed into a marketing tool. The cow who jumped over the moon, for instance, is depicted ultimately hurtling down to Earth and smashing through the roof of a house. Thankfully for the cow, though, the owner of the roof is a GEICO customer.
Moving forward, in 2011 GEICO then debuted a new campaign entitled “Easier Way to Save.” And as that name suggests, the adverts demonstrated that you don’t need to resort to drastic measures to keep hold of a little money. Serving as counter-examples to that claim are a couple who hire a bunch of paintballing Boy Scouts to decorate their lounge and a man who powers his computer with the aid of three boat-rowing guinea pigs.
In another campaign, two bluegrass musicians explain how GEICO insurance can make you happier than Dracula volunteering at a blood drive. Essentially, in the “Did You Know?” campaign, an individual relays an entirely fictional fact that is much less familiar than GEICO’s tagline. These included the assertion, “Did you know Pinocchio was a bad motivational speaker?”
Further comedy sketches followed, involving celebrity or historical figures in unusual situations. Rapper Ice-T appears in one ad running a lemonade stand and confusing customers in the process. Others show a sumo wrestler taking to the ice rink and Marco Polo playing, well, Marco Polo in a swimming pool.
And since then, GEICO has launched further campaigns that all aim to make the subject of insurance that little bit more entertaining. But the company’s arguably most successful series of commercials debuted back in 2004. The campaign in question was inspired by a short story about two theme-park employees who dress up as cave people; now, though, the GEICO cavemen have practically taken on lives of their own.
For those in a cave themselves during the 2000s, these commercials featured the slogan, “So easy, a caveman could do it.” Of course, this particular claim enrages the modern-day cavemen, who now live as highly sophisticated and intelligent individuals. And while Ben Weber and Jeff Daniel Phillips have both donned various prosthetics to portray the characters, it’s John Lehr who has assumed the role most often.
Lehr stars in the first ever GEICO caveman ad, in fact, as a boom mic operator working on a TV ad set. Inevitably, the caveman becomes offended after discovering the commercial’s derogatory tone towards his species, shouting “Not cool” before storming off in disgust. In another ad, Lehr is once again buried under a ton of make-up as his caveman character undergoes therapy.
And while speaking to Interviewing Hollywood, Lehr revealed he had no idea that the series of TV ads would become so popular. He said, “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.” So does he mind having to cover up and go largely unnoticed for such a role?
Well, actually no. As Lehr went on to explain to Interviewing Hollywood, “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. It kind of fits 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.”
Yet the actor did admit that there is at least one aspect of playing a caveman of which he’s not too fond. And unsurprisingly, it’s the amount of time that he’s had to spend in the make-up chair. He told Interviewing Hollywood, “It’s a little disconcerting to have two men touching your face for three hours or two.”
Nonetheless, the co-creator of the cavemen ads, Joe Lawson, was certainly appreciative of Lehr’s efforts. In a 2007 interview with Esquire magazine, Lawson said, “I love John Lehr in anything. 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.” And as it happens, the caveman character himself was unexpectedly to be given a new life of his own.
You see, the GEICO commercials proved to be so popular that in 2007 ABC developed a sitcom based around their hirsute main characters. Unfortunately, though, what worked during a 30-second commercial didn’t work during a 30-minute comedy. Cavemen was dropped from the schedules after just one episode, in fact, despite a further six having being made. But if Lehr had taken on a more prominent role in the show, things possibly could have been different.
Yes, Lehr only made a cameo during the pilot episode of the sitcom as a weatherman. Although the show’s producers had wanted the actor to play a bigger part, he was already committed to another gig. Yet according to Channel Guide magazine, Lehr still gave the show and its stars his full blessing. And despite the subsequent flop, the cavemen adverts still brought him more work.
In any case, Lehr appeared to capitalize on the popularity of the cavemen ads through several other projects. For example, in 2004 – the same year the campaign launched – he staged a one-man show titled The Lehr Curse. And the off-Broadway production saw Lehr candidly address his darker days when he was addicted to various substances.
As Lehr went on to explain to Forbes magazine, “Quitting drugs and alcohol — as hard as it is — is the easy part. What’s really hard is living without the drugs and the alcohol. I didn’t know how to be sober. What people don’t realize about addicts and alcoholics [is that drugs and alcohol make] it easier to live with them. Take [the substances] away, and then the real dragon comes out.”
It appears, too, that talking about his substance abuse issues in front of an audience helped Lehr both professionally and personally. The actor explained to Interviewing Hollywood, “I just started to get a taste of the fact that I had something… specific to say to an audience [and] that it was okay for me to be out front, to be the lead.”
After all, Lehr claimed that he had previously found it difficult to establish his place in the entertainment world. He added, “I’m like an odd duck, I think. I’ve kind of had to forge my own way.” Still, in the wake of the cavemen ads, Lehr appeared to discover his true calling. And in 2004 he joined forces with director/writer Nancy Hower to found production company Howler Monkey.
Lehr and Hower then went on to produce and write several small-screen comedies, including supermarket sitcom 10 Items or Less in 2006 and Western spoof Quick Draw in 2013. And Lehr inadvertently showed audiences that underneath all the cavemen prosthetics, he’s actually a very handsome man. Without the heavy make-up, he took on the role of manager Leslie Pool in 10 Items or Less and portrayed sheriff Henry Hoyle in Quick Draw.
And when Lehr was asked by The A.V. Club in 2008 how he chooses whether to act, write or produce, he replied, “I used to be so much about ‘I’m going to do this, and I’m going to make it happen no matter what.’ And I’ve become much more successful with just following what’s in my life. Rather than feeling like I’m in charge, I’m kind of letting the things around me dictate a bit more, which is a lot mellower and more comfortable.” Indeed, this approach even led to an unlikely comeback of sorts.
After a lengthy break, in 2018 Lehr returned to the stand-up world, showcasing both his improv and comedy-writing skills. Explaining his decision to go back to the stage, he told Nicki Swift, “I had these thoughts in my brain, and I wanted to communicate to people directly and in a live format. The problem as a stand-up comedian is [that] my default is to improvise… It’s just the way I’m wired.”
And while Lehr admitted that his improv skills can be incredibly useful – especially when it comes to making a speech without warning – he also acknowledges that they can have their downsides. He told Nicki Swift, “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.”
So if you haven’t managed to catch Lehr without make-up yet, there should be plenty of chances soon. He has several works in pre-or post-production, in fact, including short film The Exchange and TV movie The Tingle. The actor is also set to play a vacationing husband in horror movie The Tarot – proving in the process, perhaps, that there’s more to him than just portraying a grumpy caveman.