Fast lines at this grocery store

Times Staff Writer

It's like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books you loved as a kid.

When Roberta Valderrama auditioned for TBS' new series "10 Items or Less," about life working in a supermarket, producers handed her an actual application to the grocery store where the show is set.

In filling out the form, she scribbled a character into existence that day: Yolanda Nelson, she wrote, mother of three and a former security guard fired for sporting oversized hoop earrings. Not only did Valderrama land a role, she plays the same sassy Latina -- minus a couple of traits stamped "not kosher" for TV -- that originally popped into her mind.

And that's pretty much the way it's been ever since. As the show progresses, Yolanda's life is predominantly steered not by the show's writers but by the improvisational actors around her. Early on, for example, it transpired that Yolanda and Carl, an Eeyore-like, middle-aged stock boy played by Robert Clendenin, had a hot affair that produced her third child, unbeknown to Carl. Same goes for the secret dream that Christopher L. Moore's character, Richard the cashier, has harbored since youth: a spot in the Ice Capades.

The blurred line between the show's scripted plot points and its go-with-the-flow, performer-fueled twists and turns is the allure producers are hoping viewers will latch onto beginning with tonight's premiere. It toes the line between the old and new prime-time vehicles: the three-camera comedy set around a living room couch versus the voter-driven voyeurism of reality TV.

"Sitcoms feel very badum-bum pshh," says John Lehr, one of the show's creators. This show "isn't real, but it feels realer than that."

Contrary to what comes to mind when people think of improv, the head games of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" or the sketches of Chicago's Second City, "this is not going to be a crazy, far-out show," says Lehr. The "10 Items or Less" team just wants something a little less rigid than the traditional model. "A little more loosey-goosey," he says, likening it to something more along the lines of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

The show trails Leslie, played by Lehr, as he returns home to Ohio to run the Greens & Grains grocery store bequeathed to him by his father. To avoid the pricey hassle of building their own market, the cast and crew invaded a Jons Marketplace store in Reseda for filming.

On one side of the floral department, real Jons customers go about their business, plucking salad dressing and crackers off the shelves. But when they veer a little too far to the left, they risk picking up "Cheeh" detergent, rather than Cheer.

Which is unfortunate, executive producer Robert Hickey says, "because those stickers are really expensive." Aside from a few similar encroachments, the cast and crew stick to their assigned corner, where they've built their own checkout lines, customer service desk and meat counter -- manned by "the hot butcher," a staple in any imaginary grocery store.

During the last week of shooting over the summer, things progressed as they had for the previous five weeks. The cast and crew went about their business, pausing occasionally to assist a Jons customer who had lost her way.

"Someone will ask me where the ketchup is and I'm dressed like a manager, so I'll respond," Lehr says.

That fluid dynamic between the actors and actual shoppers ends up being a useful tool, co-executive producer Nancy Hower says. "It constantly keeps them in character, which is helpful in improv."

Occasionally, a Jons patron gets diverted to the Greens & Grains checkout. As Keijo "Ken" Kataja rolled his cart by the camera-filled corner, he stopped and joked, "Is it time to smile?" The 62-year-old was instantly pegged as an ideal random Ohio shopper in his blue-flannel button-down, suspenders and trucker hat.

Did they have a minute? A crew member asked him and his wife, Vicki, to which Kataja replied, "We're retirees. We've got all the time in the world."

The couple spent the next hour standing at the cash register, stone-faced, as Lehr shouted, boxing-coach style, over the shoulder of one of his employees as she learned to bag groceries blindfolded, "like a soldier putting together his rifle."

It's an everyday scenario frosted with a smidge of insanity. "Absurd comedy that feels real," Lehr says.

Coming to an aisle near you.


'10 Items or Less'

Where: TBS

When: 11 tonight

Ends: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)

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