Andy Richter’s career has had many stages. Today he sits alongside Conan O’Brien as he hosts his talk show on TBS which works as a parallel line reflecting his first job on television, when he started on stage alongside Conan on Late Night in 1993. He left that show in 2000 to follow his own path and establish his own career as a comedic actor. Today we take a look back at the first sitcom he starred in, 2002’s Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
If you were to go by just plot descriptions of Andy Richter Controls the Universe you might think it’s nothing all that special. Andy Richter plays a shy but likable character that shares the same name who lives in Chicago in a smallish apartment, works as a technical manual writer for a large corporation, and shares an office with a weird guy, a cool guy, and a receptionist that he has a crush on. Come to think of it, except for the fact that he lives in a major city, that’s basically a description of Jim Halpert from the American version of The Office.
But there’s more going on in this show. In addition to being our main character, Andy is also the narrator of our show, taking the concept of an unreliable narrator to its most extreme degree. We don’t only see the story unfold from Andy’s perspective, we think about the story the way the character thinks about it. For example, when Andy wakes up in the morning, he’s alone. His alarm goes off, he groggily turns it off, sits on the edge of his bed, puts a pinky finger in his ear, twists it a couple of times before walking off, transfixed by what he’s dug out. From a narrative perspective we learn a little bit about our character in this moment, but from a TV real estate perspective, this is basically dead air. But despite the fact that this is his first moment in the day, this isn’t our introduction to the character.
Instead, at the top of the show, Andy’s disembodied voice begins speaking to us about the poor state of his body and how he could wake some morning suddenly suffering from a heart attack. As he says this we see Andy clutch at his chest, reach for the phone, and in his last moments, attempt to call 911 but instead dial 411 and ends up inadvertently requesting a phone number for “Help me,” in the city “I’m dying.” He flops down in his bed, seemingly dead, only to have our narrator reveal that, “Or the pain in my chest could have just as easily turned out to be indigestion,” and we see Andy belch. In the first 30 seconds of the pilot, our main character wakes, dies, and burps. The show rewinds and we get another version of how things could have played out. This time Andy is awoken by Wendy, played by Irene Molloy, in flowing red lingerie, the new receptionist at his job. Andy tries to play it cool and doesn’t, but she doesn’t care and they begin to make out.
Andy explains that he thinks about this stuff all the time because he’s a writer, and “writers are obsessed with possibilities.” As the series progresses we are treated to a wide variety of embellishments from our narrator that give us a clear view of what he’s thinking, even if they can mislead the viewer or confuse the story (in a good way). After coming back from commercial, our narrator sets the stage as “Shanghai, 1945,” but quickly gives up on the lie and resets the stage in Chicago. When Andy arrives at his office, the first “co-worker” he introduces us to is Mr. Pickering, “the dead guy who founded [the company] 100 years ago.” When Andy says “hello,” Mr. Pickering leans in close and responds, “The problem with America is the Negro and the Jew.” I have to assume that the show would have to have evolved an awful lot before The Office would allow Jim to have a similarly racist, imaginary boss. The show rewinds, Andy enters, and sees Wendy as Etta James’ “At Last” begins to play, the lights dim, and everyone but she and Andy are shrouded in darkness. Andy walks over to her and in this dramatic moment she hands him his mail and the lights snap back on as Andy is returned to reality.
We are introduced to Keith, the cool guy at work, played by James Patrick Stuart, who apparently has already slept with Wendy. When Andy learns this it fits perfectly into his worldview; just as Liz Lemon will explain to Jon Hamm on 30 Rock years later, things just fall into the laps of the attractive. We see an example as Keith sits in his office playing Solitaire and a coworker begins to explain a massive problem before realizing Keith is “far too handsome to deal with this” before remembering that because he’s so attractive, he and his coworkers pitched in together to get Keith an envelope full of money.
Next we meet Byron, played Jonathan Slavin, who for some reason is sitting behind the desk in Andy’s office. It’s his first day and he was told this was his office. His mad scientist hair and gentle but fragile voice tell us that Byron is weird and perpetually on the verge of a breakdown. Andy’s boss, Jessica, played by Paget Brewster, attempts to help the situation but is powerless to do anything so Andy must share an office.
Staying late, Andy is convinced by the imaginary Mr. Pickering to alter Byron’s technical illustrations that could, in a worst case scenario, kill a lot of people, and in a best case scenario get Byron fired. Concerned that his audience might judge him too harshly, the next thing Narrator Andy shows us is himself sitting on his bed surrounded by puppies hopping all over him. “I thought it was important that you saw a nice side of me. A bad person would never enjoy puppies like this.”
Things go according to plan and Andy finds that Byron has been fired by their supervisor, Arnich. Later that night, Keith, Wendy, Jessica and Andy hang out, and Byron tags along. No matter how hard he tries to resist, Andy and he bond that evening and ultimately Andy realizes that he has to go to bat for the guy. Jessica and Andy confront Arnich, get Byron his job back. Andy reflects on his day, and his life in general: “Jessica’s great: strong, forgiving, she’d do anything for a friend. And Byron! A great artist and easy to hang with. And Keith: attractive on the outside, and on the inside. And Wendy! She wants me to talk to her more and she’s so pretty. All good, well meaning individuals, and together, we’re a group of galactic crime fighters! All right, I don’t have a big finish, because most events in life don’t have a big finish. I got to keep my job, I realized I have good friends, and I did what was right.” This moment perfectly sums up Andy Richter Controls the Universe: it’s a show about little things in life told alongside the huge flights of fancy we go through in our minds as we deal with those little things. And what better everyman than Andy to take us through this journey?
Well, that depends on who you ask. Before this point, Richter was primarily a second banana. He sat next to Conan, and he’d participate in a sketch or two, maybe he’d pipe in during an interview with a quip, but Late Night wasn’t his show. He had a great gig, but it was Conan’s dream job, not his. As a result, there were some who weren’t so sure he could carry the weight of an actual performance. In a 2007 interview with NPR, Andy describes going to the first table read for the pilot of Andy Richter. After the read had ended, the first public performance of the material, “one of the really higher ups at Paramount [came up to him and] said ‘Wow, you can really act!’” As far as America knew, Andy Richter only knew how to play Andy Richter, in the moment. But as any astute viewer of Late Night could see that Andy had funny in his bones and was a performer through and through.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe lasted two seasons on Fox, which sadly, was a pretty good run for such an outside-the-box program on that particular network. In 2003, just shortly after it had been cancelled, Arrested Development began its run on the same network and the San Francisco Gate referred to the show as “so funny it’s doomed” and compared it to Richter, saying “There hasn’t been a network show this funny since Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t Fox air that – and cancel it? Didn’t Andy Richter end up in the dustbin of humor history (with loads of other really good Fox series)?” Unfortunately, they were right on both counts, but thank goodness this wasn’t the last time we saw Arrested or Andy (they even hang out together).