Going Inside the TV Comedy Machine with Andy Richter

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Andy Richter is professionally nice. He got his start playing sweetest dad in the game Mike Brady in The Real Live Brady Bunch and just got more convivial from there. From 1993-2007, and then from 2009 to today, Richter has been softening the edges of Conan O’Brien—first on Late Night, then the ill-fated Tonight Show run, and now on TBS. Richter starred in the shows Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Quintuplets, and Andy Barker, P.I. and hosted the ABC game show Big Fan. His Twitter is one of the most politically astute places to read a joke about worm sex, and he’s an outspoken advocate for mental health and abortion rights. He will be appearing at the 17th SF Sketchfest at podcast recordings and a live reading of Mike Sacks’s novel, Stinker Lets Loose, produced by Audible and out as an audiobook now.

It must be kind of strange to be linked so closely to another person and have your career so intrinsically connected to somebody else’s.

Yeah.

So what is it like to work with Sarah Thyre?

Hahaha! Well, most of the work we do together is off-screen and remains off-screen. It’s pretty great.  Being married is not an easy thing, and being married for as long as we have, which, if you’ll let me do the math—

By all means.

What is this, 2018?

Uh huh.

So we’ll be coming up on 24 years in March. And staying married that long is not easy. But it’s pretty great. It makes for a wonderful sense of continuity, certainly one that Sarah and I never enjoyed. My folks divorced when I was four, and hers divorced when she was pretty young. So just to have given kids a continuity this long, just in terms of holding a marriage together. And it’s nice that we’ve stayed married not just for the sake of staying married, we actually love each other. We are married because we want to be married to each other, not just because we want to prove a point to our parents about how they gave up the ship too early.

It’s the real foundation of my life. It’s sort of the only thing that really matters. Most every other thing that I do, career-wise or showbiz-wise, it’s my job. If I won the lottery, I’d have a hard time keeping doing my job. If I had money and the ability to hang out with these people, that’s what I’d probably do.

Speaking of your job, you’ve been on a nightly or near-nightly show for off-and-on 20 years now.

Yeah. There was a big open stretch there in the middle, but it’s been eight or nine years at TBS now. Good, long stretches of being on television every night.

There’s something so cool about nightly talk shows in that the need for content lets a lot of very nutty ideas get through, just because something has to get up every night.

Absolutely. You can’t be too precious about any of the details. We’re laying tracks for a train that is moving. You just gotta get it down and get it out. It’s almost a zen lesson of “Just do it, don’t think it, don’t worry about it. Just live it and breathe it and do it and make it happen.” Of course there’s quality control, but you’re absolutely right, there’s just more spontaneity on a show like ours. But the reason these shows exist is not because everyone said “Hey let’s create a laboratory of spontaneity!” It’s because they’re cheap, and they’re a good way to promote other things, and people have gotten into the habit of watching them. But the secret, nice, sneaky thing that gets to happen is that, if you care about comedy, you get to see lots of it that is fairly un-meddled-with by corporate concerns. There’s just too much going on, they can’t keep track of everything.

When I went back to Conan, I was excited to go back because I had been working on regular television comedy, and everything moved so slowly. There were so many pitch meetings, and so many people can come in and get their stupid, unfunny fingers all over your work. I was really happy to go back to a place where I could literally have an idea that morning and it would be on TV that night. That’s pretty neat.  

Can you think of a favorite moment of something that came from not thinking, just putting it out there?

Robert Smigel, who was the head writer early on, he and his wife found these stupid puppets – these stupid dog puppets at some sort of hipster Lower East Side shop that sold ‘50s furniture and random kitschy junk. They found these very lifelike, weird, rubber dog puppets of different breeds, like hand puppets. It coincided with the Westminster Dog Show, so we’d say “The Westminster Dog Show has these dogs that are amazingly talented! Here, check this out.” And we’d use one of those puppets, we’d show him riding a bicycle. We’d build a cheesy little prop. It was just out of having these goofy little puppets, there’s the dog show, here’s something we can do that’s really stupid. It’s just completely silly and stupid, the exact sort of thing you’d do at the kitchen table to make your family laugh. Not something that’s going on your reel so that you can someday become Woody Allen. This is just something stupid, and we put it on TV. Of the many silly ideas of what dogs could do—we had a ventriloquist dog, for example—one of them was a Don Rickles-style insult comic. And the character of Triumph just came out of that. Now Triumph is…Eminem rapped about Triumph, for Christ’s sake. That was all just out of stupid expedience. Just like, “Ah, look, a stupid puppet! Let’s put it on that TV show where no one tells us what to do.”

Most of your work is in the least-mediated part of entertainment. But you also do a lot of voiceover work, where a year will go by between the initial idea and when it actually comes out. Do you prefer one of those?

No, those two I like the most. What I ultimately like doing is making things. The roar of a crowd, it never mattered that much to me. I don’t know, maybe I’m in possession of some sort of self-security, some sense of self-worth that my mom put there or something. It was there even from my baby years on stage, doing improv in Chicago. When I was on stage with somebody who really needed it, I’d be like “Alright, buddy, you go ahead. You get all you want. I’m fine, I’ll just wait until you’re done and we’ll continue the scene,” in terms of stage-hogging or attention-needing. Working for a live audience has never mattered that much to me.

I went to film school, and my first job out of college was working in film production and working freelance. I really responded to that. I responded to different faces and different places and it always changing. I’m lucky to be able to work and have this consistency of paychecks and place and text that you’re working on, but I also really loved the times in my life when I was freelance. I would do a guest spot, and then a movie, and then another guest spot, and then a series of my own. It’s whatever the project is. I like working on things that I’m going to like. When I work on a cartoon, even if it’s a kid’s cartoon, I’m going to like that kid’s cartoon. Whereas, if I’m guesting on a big hit show that I don’t particularly care about, I don’t really care that much. I like the project. I liked shooting the series that I starred in. I liked doing those. The show Quintuplets that was on Fox, that was kinda…that was fun and I really liked the cast, but that wasn’t the same as the other shows I did where I had some creative say. But I just like making good, funny work that I can be proud of. That isn’t to say I’m above anything. If you’ve got a reverse mortgage commercial for me, I’ll take it.  

You’ve got Sketchfest coming up.

Yes, I’m just realizing today that I’m leaving tomorrow.

What do you have going on there?

I am doing things just with people that I like. I’m doing a show with Jesse Thorn. He’s got his own podcast empire. I’m doing a show with Jimmy Pardo, and I’m doing a show called Stinker Lets Loose. Mike Sacks wrote a book. It’s the 40th anniversary celebration of the novelization of the movie Stinker Lets Loose, which is an Any Which Way But Loose, Smokey and the Bandit kind of movie. [whispers] But it didn’t really happen. So it’s a movie novelization of a very particular thing. And there’s an audiobook of it, and we’re going to do a live reading.

There’s a connection between Mike Sacks taking the ‘70s fascination with truckers and turning it into an audiobook, and Robert Smigel finding a silly puppet and making a joke out of that.

Yeah. I think we are living in a time where a person can have such a particular, very specific idea and really develop it, really go into it, and really go nuts over it to the point where it almost seems like a mania. And it comes out, and it’s really funny. Everything is so spread out. Television is so good right now because there’s so many places for television to be made that there isn’t the pressure on it. It doesn’t all have to be about superheroes. You can have TV shows that are about lots of different things, and trying lots of different things, because it’s not like you’ve got a corporation sinking their entire budget into one thing. There are lots of pots on the stove right now, bubbling away. And this silly novelization of a nonexistent trucker movie is kind of an example of something that gets to be turned into almost a mania. And then you get lots of talented people who are into that process who go “This sounds fun! This isn’t a superhero movie.”

Does this fragmentation of the market make you want to get back into developing stuff?

Yes, yes it does. As I’ve grown older, I like to do projects that I really care about. When I was younger, and my kids were younger, I kind of didn’t know how to be a grown-up just yet. I was still figuring out how to be grown-up, how to be a dad, how to be a husband, to support a family. I had these ambitions. They were realistic ambitions, sort of along the lines of being Tom Arnold in True Lies. To become the best friend in a juggernaut Hollywood film. If I could just play the bumbling security guard in juggernaut action movies, that would be crazy success. As time goes on, it’s like #1, those movies don’t exist anymore, and #2, how long are you really going to be satisfied doing that? Tom Arnold was in True Lies, and where’s Tom Arnold now? It’s not a sustainable plan to be not the action star of a bunch of giant action movies. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just wanted to do stuff I like. Stuff I’m proud of. I want people to see it, but it doesn’t have to be gigantic.

That being said, I started my career in the early ‘90s, when people actually got paid good money for being on television. So that part does kind of stink. Friends that are on network shows now, I say “Hey, good job on that network show.” And friends who are on a cable show or a Netflix show, it’ll be like “Man, that show was hilarious, that show was great,” but you know that once that show is done, they’re back out looking for more work. Whereas the person on the network show, if it lasts for five years, they don’t have to work. There’s still a big fucking pile of cash in network television that there isn’t in other parts of the business. In some ways, the lessening of money in TV comedies is a natural correction. There were guys who wrote on Seinfeld for five minutes getting $4 million development deals who’d never made anyone beyond their mothers laugh back in the ‘90s. That was ridiculous, and that all fell apart.

Well it’s like you were saying, with more money comes more unfunny unfunny hands touching everything.

Yes. And you get a lot of “You gotta drink Pepsi in this scene,” and “You gotta make sure you’re holding the Pepsi this way.” There are lots of complicating factors that come into it. Lots of people from a studio or from a network are paid to have opinions, and if their opinion is just “I think the person that you hired to make this is doing a good job, and we should trust him or her to do the job” – if your opinion is just that you should trust the artist you hired – people are going to wonder what you’re being paid to do. So lots of people at networks are paid to have opinions, regardless of whether they are good or helpful. So every episode of every show is weighed in by at least eight or nine people who don’t really have a point of view, are probably not very helpful, but the person doing the show has to at least play a pantomime game of “Look, I’m addressing your notes!” A Netflix show has people telling you what to do, but not much, and in my experience those people are pretty cool. They’re like “Sounds good, just don’t spend too much money too fast.” But it’s when you get to the network that you get to the squeezing out of anything interesting or challenging or unique.

Going Inside the TV Comedy Machine with Andy Richter