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Lots of laughs in absurd new 'Richter' show

Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This one definitely will be an acquired taste, but the creative, expectation-defying "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" deserves to be acquired by enough viewers to keep it on the air.

Richter, the former sidekick on NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," headlines this odd, often absurd Fox comedy.

TV Review
"Andy Richter Controls the Universe"
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on Fox.
Starring: Andy Richter, Paget Brewster, Irene Molloy.

"This is a show about a world-famous foot surgeon, one who's only 4 years old and not very good," Andy says in narration at the start of Tuesday's premiere. "I'm kidding."

It's really a show about possibilities, Andy explains, and he means it - literally. Some scenes play out multiple times with various possible outcomes: The way Andy imagines it, another way Andy imagines it and, finally, how it really happened.

Andy, who works for a huge Chicago company that manufactures everything from night lights to nuclear missiles, has a crush on secretary Wendy (Irene Molloy, so good as the Shannen Doherty character on The WB's short-lived "Grosse Pointe").

In an upcoming episode, Andy imagines impressing Wendy by crushing a chunk of coal into a diamond. Then he imagines healing a woman in a wheelchair - and then crushing her skull into a diamond.

Typical sitcom humor, this is not.

In addition to cute Wendy, Andy's co-workers include his boss, Jessica (Paget Brewster). and his friend Keith (James Patrick Stuart), whose good looks Andy envies.

"Things just come to good looking people," Andy whines. Things like Wendy, who is dating Keith. Andy barely can get up the courage to say hello to her in the premiere episode.

"I'm shy," Andy says. "It's endearing."

Andy once tried to date Jessica, but they'd been friends too long.

"We may have crossed a line that time when I held your hair while you were vomiting," Andy tells Jessica in a flashback.

In the premiere, Andy's annoyed to discover he's been assigned a new office mate, Byron (Jonathan Slavin), an illustrator who will work with Andy on writing manuals for military weapons.

Upcoming episodes feature the death of a work colleague (played for laughs), Andy's efforts to date a woman he knew in high school and the story of a budget-conscious boss, who takes away the staff's coffee creamer.

"What's next? Holding hot coffee in our cupped hands?" Jessica asks. She demands he return their creamer and plastic disposable utensils. "No more sporks and spives and kniforks. It's like Dr. Seuss' kitchen down there!"

What's most amazing about this unusual and unusually funny show is its pedigree. Richter, one of the producers, certainly has quality comedy credentials from his years on "Late Night." But "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" was created by Victor Fresco, whose track record includes the bad ABC comedy "The Trouble with Normal," the abysmally shrill NBC sitcom "Fired Up" and the CBS half-hour "Almost Perfect," which was anything but what its title implied.

Somehow all of those failures prepared Fresco to get it right with "Andy Richter Controls the Universe."

Brewster and Slavin are also veterans of failed series past (Brewster was a regular on Fresco's "Trouble with Normal"), but they're much better served here. Slavin's bug-eyed look and various facial expressions complement the dialogue he's given.

In one episode, Jessica and Byron argue over which one of them bears more responsibility for the co-worker's death.

"I am not the one who screamed at him until his heart exploded!" Byron shouts.

"Andy Richter" follows the trend of other recent television comedies, forsaking a laugh track for special effects, including the frequent sound of a tape rewinding as Andy re-imagines a scene.

With "Scrubs" and "Malcolm in the Middle" showing off similar tricks, some viewers may tire of effects and voice-over narration, but this style suits the Walter Mitty-esque qualities of "Andy Richter."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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