Andy Richter, the man who for seven years proved himself the rare late-night television sidekick worthy of being labeled equal partner, is not given to saying nasty things about people who sign his paychecks, a rarity in a business where people are more than happy to bite, then bite off, the hand that feeds them. So do not expect Conan O'Brien's former colleague to speak ill of the Fox television network's decision to air a mere 13 episodes of his mostly brilliant series, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, this season. Do not expect him to question why Fox is reintroducing the series in December, a ratings black hole situated just between November sweeps and the New Year's Day hangover. Do not expect him to criticize the network for using the show, which debuted last spring and ran for only six episodes when nine were completed, to fill in the fissure left by Fox's decision to cancel The Grubbs before it ever aired (itself a mercy killing, as the Randy Quaid series about white-trash morons may have been the worst series ever given the go-ahead by a major network). Richter isn't about to say a nasty word, because that is not the way the big man rolls.
As far as Richter's concerned, merely being on television is a triumph. He half expects that one day he will find himself pitching Showtime Rotisserie Ovens on late-night infomercials, and he will be just fine should it come to that. Bitterness will not feed the wife and kid; anger will not keep the bill collectors at bay. Leave the bitching and moaning to those who do not understand there is no understanding the business of television, which manufactures hits out of stale refuse and tosses its freshest produce into the garbage pile. "I have known financial hardship from a very early age," says the son of parents who divorced when he was 4. It's his way of explaining why he is happy to have a show on the air--whenever that is, wherever it lands.
"I could suss out a bill collector's call at, probably, age 7," Richter says, muting the laugh track on our conversation. "I knew what a bill collector phone call sounded like. So, to me, financial problems are a cancer for which I'm desperately seeking a cure. And they're probably in the way of being a real artist, because I think that there's this pressure on me. I see people who have completely shit all over themselves in their careers by going right from getting a little public notoriety and then being the star of some awful, shitty comedy. I don't want to do that. I want to have some sort of organic growth to my career. But I sometimes feel like a tremendous sell-out because it is important to me to make that living, and there is this pressure, especially having a child and a mortgage, to reach that goal and get that fuck-you money. Then I can feel like I can relax and be concerned about that book I want to write or whatever."
Do not think, not for a single second, that Richter isn't happy with his series, in which he portrays a lovable schlep who writes technical manuals but dreams about that book he wants to write. He will challenge anyone to say, "Oh, it's just the same old shit." He says, repeatedly, he does not want to be involved with a show his friends--Janeane Garofalo, say, or David Cross--will watch and groan at. His fear of failure is second only to his fear of humiliation--and this comes from a man who used to make Conan O'Brien laugh by donning what he calls "a fuckin' flesh-colored G-string" and parading about the Today show set.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe, which returns December 1 at 8:30 p.m. C.S.T., is the sort of show a network should embrace: It's surreal but not willfully weird, heartfelt but not cancerously saccharine, clever without winking itself into a coma, goofy without ever lapsing into the sitcom-silly. It's the kind of show that sabotages Andy's love interests by making them anti-Semitic ("Someone called for you," says a very hot former high school crush. "Some Jew"), then forcing Andy to confront his guilt by volunteering at an old-Jews' home. The kind of show on which Andy offends a black colleague who, as it turns out, is Irish--and Andy is "sick of the Irish." The kind of show on which a grief counselor, called in to console the staff after a death in the office, commits suicide. The kind of show on which Paget Brewster's character swaps off with twin brothers, played by Dan Cortese, because one's smart and awful in bed ("talky") and the other's an idiot and an awesome lay ("humpy").
Between its wry, deadpan one-liners ("I'm going to build a temple out of shrimp in your honor--in my stomach"), its estimable ensemble cast (including James Patrick Stuart as the too-handsome Keith and Jonathan Slavin as the nebbishy Byron) and the what-if sequences that take place inside Andy's head, it could be Fox's Scrubs--if only the network were willing to give Andy Richter Controls the Universe a permanent slot, rather than a brief spin through a scheduling rotating door. It's everything a network exec craves--quirky, quixotic, funny as hell--and fears at the same time, because it isn't about some fat idiot dad trying to screw his pretty wife and raise his pretty screwed-up 2.5 kids on a studio set that looks like a Midwestern split-level. ABC has no problem giving Jim Belushi, the anti-John, a full season's worth of shows, yet Fox refuses to acknowledge it has something truly special and rare in Richter.
Still, Richter and Victor Fresco, the series' creator, will not whine about their show being treated by Fox like a blind, deaf and woefully ugly foster child with a gimpy left leg and a right arm 10 inches shorter than the left. They have every right to be upset with how Fox is using Andy Richter, one of the few shows that merit your even owning a TV set now that Curb Your Enthusiasm has ended its season, to fill space and kill time, but won't. They have every right to complain that their series, which debuted March 20 to respectable ratings and garnered Fresco an Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy nomination, has been given short shrift compared with such new shows as Fastlane (so dumb retarded people find it retarded) and John Doe (as in, beat John Doe), but won't. Not when prodded, poked or goaded.
"The odd thing about my business is it has a huge failure rate," Fresco says. "Those of us who make a fairly good living have a lot of failures. Very few of us have created Friends, and even those who do have more failures than successes. You hope for the best, but you always want to protect yourself, and it's not a bad thing to launch when no one else is launching. But that's not why we're launching now. It wasn't up to me. I often think of TV as a family instead of a monolith, and the process isn't nearly as organized as people think."
"In a sense, we're a success," Richter adds. "Just having a network read your script is a success, in the grand scheme of things. And, in the grand scheme of things, in terms of, like, the law of averages, I'm a gazillionaire! We're, like, the luckiest people. We're doing fantastic, because we've been on network television for going on two seasons. You know, there are people who would kill for that. I have to be careful, and the people that I work with, we have to be careful to not fall into that thing of, 'Well, yeah, but still, we still are struggling...' It's like, 'No, goddamn it! We're America's sweethearts!'"
Fact is, there's someone high up at the network who really doesn't care much for Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Someone who doesn't have faith in it, someone who believes it too freaky for prime time. "A powerful person," Richter explains, never mentioning who. But there are enough people lower on the food chain who want to keep it around, though for how long depends on whether it catches on when it reappears at precisely the time most people start switching off their TVs to sit around the fireplace and stare at the Christmas tree with tummies full of spiked egg nog. The show will get a decent enough lead-in--it's the last piece of the Sunday-night-yuks puzzle that includes Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle--but it's a sign of very conditional love. For two weeks, it will be forced to contend with The Sopranos; then, the holidays. And the network will also have to stretch out 13 episodes--10 new ones, three left over from last season--till May, since it's debuting earlier than expected.
"It is conditional love, but it's still love," Richter says, coming close to complaining but veering off the road just before a head-on collision. "We're still there. The thing is, I have faith in this thing, but I also know that anything can happen...I have the feeling of, like, if they don't do everything possible to make this show a success, it's their loss. They are making a horrible mistake. If they had canceled this show, they would've been making a horrible mistake, 'cause I have every intention of this show being a success, a real success."
Then again, if Andy Richter really did control the television universe, there would be a network that ran only Mexican soap operas and infomercials featuring men wearing hilarious sweaters. There would be an all-Simpsons network, an all-Strangers with Candy channel, an Upright Citizens Brigade station. But they would never last, because there aren't enough stoners and malcontents and wiseasses to support such television. Most people watch TV to see Jim Belushi and John Ritter, to love Raymond and hang out with their Friends. Those of us who crave something a bit more nutritious and delicious in our diets will have to look a little harder, because TV ain't for us. It's for people who don't want goat cheese on their Big Macs, just special sauce.
"People with elevated tastes are always going to feel, when they walk into the diner in middle America, like the whole place is staring at them, thinking they're some kind of Commie fag," Richter says. "Most people walk into diners in America and say, 'I'll have three eggs, a piece of ham and some hash browns,' and they don't think about it, you know. There are a lot more McDonald's than there are..."
"Yeah," Richter deadpans. "Commie fag restaurants."
And that's really all we're looking for, isn't it?
"Yes! Some Commie fag soup."