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Andy Richter on the State of Comedy on Television

This week marks the DVD release of the short-lived series Andy Barker, P.I., created by Conan O’Brien and Jonathan Groff, and starring Andy Richter as a straight-laced CPA turned occasional private detective. With an all-star cast including Clea Lewis and Tony Hale (coming right out of Arrested Development), it seemed that Andy Barker couldn’t fail. But alas, it did. Vulture spoke to Richter about the state of comedy on television, what special skills it takes to be a good sidekick, and Norm MacDonald.

We all had big hopes for Andy Barker P.I., and it seemed like everything was done perfectly. Yet, as you know, it only lasted six shows. What’s it like to revisit the material after a few years?
It’s fine. I’m glad that it mattered enough to be made into a DVD because I left the late-night show, not for one particular thing, but to try many different things. The one that was most accessible was to try and get a prime-time comedy. And I got some on, which was a success, but they didn’t last, which was not a success. So it ends up leaving one feeling a little insecure as far as, Well, I don’t know if anyone cares to see me in anything. So it’s nice they want to put it out on DVD.

What do you think the problem was?
Well, when you take it to the store, you gotta put it on the right shelf. And everybody who’s done a shitty show says “Well, it was mishandled.” Well, you know, my work is varied and I’ve done different quality of things — some things I’ve done are better than others. And I know the show was really good. And I know the show had a depth of characters and a deep well of possibilities and possible stories and ways that the characters could have grown, and it was just kind of thrown on the air without any outside promotion whatsoever. Not a dollar spent anywhere. A moderate amount of on-air promotion prior to its premiere, and really nothing thereafter.

Well, you have a few shows under your belt now. You’ve got some practice. Anything lined up in the future?
Well, you know, I’m the announcer on the Tonight Show. That’s enough for a while. Who knows what’s gonna happen. Good God, with the network, and what’s happening. I feel like there’s storms brewing and we’re just clinging to our little Tonight Show buoy trying to put on a funny show and trying to see how it all shakes down. But there’s so much with the network getting sold and ratings turmoil. We just keep doing it, and until that calms down, I’m not going to be thinking about game shows I can be producing.

So you guys are pretty shaken up over the talks of Comcast buying NBC Universal?
Yeah, because you don’t know. The direction that the network is in right now, and the choices that they’ve made, have been made by a current regime. And if the network is sold and you have brand-new owners, you don’t know whether that regime is the same. You don’t know anything. It’s like new mommy and daddy. New mommy and daddy might decide to paint the house pink and have all beanbag chairs. You don’t know, so it’s not necessarily insecure, but everything’s a variable.

Living in uncertainty is pretty crappy, I would imagine.
Yeah, but it’s also not unusual. And quite frankly, who knows. If it’s for the better, then great. Because things at the network are not in good shape.

In the end, what was it that finally prompted you to do the Tonight Show? Conan contacting you? The promise of stability?
All those things. And also just how shitty it is just trying to develop comedy right now. How dumb ideas are seeming to be rewarded. How a lot of the networks seem to have basically thrown in the towel on comedy and said ‘We just basically don’t know what we’re doing or what works,’ and we just kind of have more stuff where the dad’s kind of a jerk, the mom knows best, and everybody just kind of insults each other for half an hour and at the end everybody says they love each other and tune in next week for it all to start again. And that got to be fairly soul-deadening, placing myself for judgment in front of people who I didn’t feel were deserving of that position. There was a lot of “Who the fuck are you to tell me what’s funny?” A lot of that feeling. Made me happy to come back somewhere where I could just come in here and make TV every night. And it’s simple and it’s done and the next night you start over and it’s great.

You have a favorite guest on the show?
It’s mainly fun for me when friends come on. Will Arnett is one of my best friends, so it’s just fun for somebody to come play at work for the day.

You guys have had Norm MacDonald on a few times as well.
Yeah, yeah. Although I like Norm and I’ve known Norm for many years, but Norm is an enigma, to put it mildly. The things that I remember and the things that we’re really having fun with are things like blowing up a car and driving a monster truck through a pumpkin.

Oh, that was awesome!
It was truly awesome. It was really great. And it’s fun to get to do that. But you can’t do that stuff all the time. There’s only so many giant pumpkins in the world.

Andy Richter on the State of Comedy on Television