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TV Preview: Richter's 'Universe ' sidesteps reality

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Television executives aren't always the most creative bunch. Frequently they title TV shows based on this simple formula: "The [Insert Name Here] Show."

Andy Richter is a struggling short story writer I the new Fox show, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe. (Randy Tepper, Associated Press/2001 Fox Broadcasting Co)

But the creator of Andy Richter's new Fox comedy had his own ideas for a name, beginning with "Anything Can Happen." When that was discarded, executive producer Victor Fresco said Richter suggested "Andy Richter Is Better Than You."

"Did I really pitch that?" Richter said at a January press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "Because it sounds like something I'd say."

Two months later in a telephone interview, Richter said he was ambivalent about having his name in the title but knew it was what executives wanted.

"I wanted to think of something not too cute, and so I wanted it to be bombastic and ridiculous and obnoxious so there'd be no way anyone could take it seriously," Richter said. "So I thought, 'Andy Richter Controls the Universe,' the longer and clunkier, the better! Make it a real mouthful!"

Naming the series proved easier than finding a show Richter wanted to star in. After seven years as the sidekick on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," Richter left the talk show in 2000 hoping to get more acting opportunities.

He landed a development deal with Fox, meaning the network put him under contract and sought out a vehicle that would suit Richter's sensibilities.

"I didn't want to work for anybody but Fox. I really, honestly felt that any kind of show I would feel proud of doing would be on Fox because they have 'When Animals Attack.' Most everything I do is a companion piece to 'When Animals Attack.' I want to pitch 'Humans Strike Back.' "

"Andy Richter Controls the Universe"

When: 8:30 tonight on Fox.

Starring: Andy Richter.


As Richter began to meet with different writers, their series concepts fell flat. At least two writers suggested Richter play a former late-night talk show sidekick who decides to branch out and move to Hollywood.

"It's like, what do I need you for? I just need a camcorder, you know?" Richter said.

Then he met Fresco and liked his idea of a "mischievous narrator" who allows the audience to see his flights of fantasy.

"We wouldn't have to stick to reality. I saw the potential in that and could see it lasting for a good long time," Richter said. "It's an opportunity for the show to reinvent itself virtually every week."

Richter's character, also named Andy Richter, works for a large, faceless Chicago-based corporation, founded by a long-dead white-haired man whom Andy imagines as an interfering bigot.

It's a workplace comedy with Andy's co-workers as his family of friends, though little work seems to get done.

In one episode, Andy renews an acquaintance with a beautiful girl he knew in high school, only to discover she's an unapologetic anti-Semite.

In another, Andy and his co-workers dump manure on the desk of a penny-pinching boss, only to discover he may be dying. Andy feels guilty and asks what he can do to make it up to the guy, who suggests hooking him up with Andy's supervisor, Jessica (Paget Brewster). Andy does his best to sell Jessica on the idea of sleeping with the hated boss.

"I know, I know, it's a precious gift," Andy says, "but it's not like you haven't given it out before."

Though the title character is his namesake, Richter said he doesn't draw on much from his own life for the show.

"To my knowledge, I have not had sex with an anti-Semite. Maybe the subject never came up," Richter said. "For the most part, it's fantasy. Even what's supposed to be reality in the show is somewhat fantasy. I draw on my personality, my sense of humor, but the actual character is pretty different from me. He's a lot more emotionally stunted than I am."

TV Andy is fueled by envy, which Richter said works for comedic purposes. But to really know a person like that would be irritating.

"I haven't coveted since I was 15 years old. This is like an adolescent me," Richter said. "A story about a happily married man with a child is not very funny."

That's just what Richter is: Married to writer/actress Sarah Thyre with an infant son.

At work, Richter said, he's fairly involved with the show creatively. He's a better rewriter than writer, "which makes me a real favorite among the writers to have the star of the show fancy himself a rewriter.

"But that's part of what I did on the Conan show," Richter said. "I know myself well enough to know I'm better at rearranging what's already there than dealing with blank pages."

Even so, Richter said, he could have a greater influence on what made it to air on Conan's show than on "Andy Richter." He compared "Late Night" to guerrilla filmmaking, while "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" is a well-oiled studio-run machine that follows more rules of procedure.

"I absolutely miss the immediacy of 'Late Night.' Not so much the freedom, but the grass-roots feel of it," Richter said. "I'll probably never have that again. My show and the atmosphere in L.A. is so much more grown up."

Don't take that as wistful regret. He always wanted to be an actor, and having a long career as a character actor remains his goal. Even if ABC were to bump off "Nightline" and come looking for a new late-night talk show host, Richter said he'd pass.

"It's not anything I ever really dreamed about doing. I won't say never because I'll look like an ass when I sign the contract to be a talk show host, but one of the reasons I left 'Conan' is that I always wanted to be an actor."

Back to that inventive title for his series. At the January press conference, creator Fresco joked that the show evolved after he came up with the concept of Andy Richter.

"There was no Andy Richter. I had this idea, created this guy ..."

"... Out of some leftover Dennehy parts," the slightly rotund Richter added.

"And originally it was 'Brian Dennehy Controls the Universe,'" Fresco said. "Could not get Brian Dennehy."

That's OK. At least the TV universe is in good comedic hands with 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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