The last time Andy Richter spoke to The A.V. Club, he had recently departed Late Night With Conan O’Brien after seven years as co-host. After departing, Richter starred in several television vehicles, including Quintuplets, Andy Barker, P.I., and the criminally short-lived Andy Richter Controls The Universe, which has just become available on DVD. After these projects, plus voiceover work for films like Madagascar and the animated series The Mighty B!, Richter is returning to O’Brien’s side, this time on The Tonight Show. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Richter about the cyclical nature of his career, Fox’s problems with holding onto good sitcoms, and what he’s learned about show business during his time away from O’Brien.
The A.V. Club: Fans of Andy Richter Controls The Universe are greeting the news of the DVD release with a mix of disbelief and joy. Why is it being released now?
Andy Richter: I wish I knew, ’cause it’s just in time for people who were just about to completely forget about it to not forget about it. I know Victor Fresco and Andy Ackerman, who are two of the executive producers on the show—Victor created it, and Andy directed most of the episodes—they’ve been pushing Paramount and trying to get them to do it, and they just move really slowly over there on certain things. And other things, they don’t. I’m sure if we had Klingons in there, Paramount would have released it very quickly.
AVC: It seems like Andy Richter Controls The Universe could be on the air right now. It seems very similar to shows like 30 Rock or Scrubs, especially with the fantasy sequences.Do you watch a lot of shows now and feel like the sitcom could still fit into the landscape?
AR: No, not really. I watch mediocre shows that have been on for three or four seasons, and feel angry at them. I don’t watch good shows and think, “Oh, I could have been along with these shows.” I just watch bad shows and go, “Why them?” I mean, I’m sort of kidding, but not really.
Also, we didn’t invent fantasy sequences and a playful narrative. At the time, we were just trying to make a good show. I was a writer on the show and tried to contribute to it as much as I could, and put my personality and standards on the show. There’s so much that goes ahead of why a show stays on the air other than whether it’s good. Whether it’s good is probably 8th or 9th on the list, in terms of what matters. I’m just happy and proud it’s coming out. The timing of it, occurring in the general neighborhood of when I’m going to be on The Tonight Show, that’s just kind of a happy accident. Also, I’m not sure when, but Andy Barker, P.I. is supposed to be coming out on DVD soon, too. I do like at least when I go crawling back to Conan, there’s some tangible evidence that my time away was spent fruitfully, you know? [Laughs.] There’s actually evidence that I wasn’t just lying in bed reading magazines.
AVC: Do you feel a sense of camaraderie talking to other actors who worked on, say, Arrested Development? Is there a cabal of people who were on great shows that ended too early?
AR: I guess. We’re part of the pearls-before-swine club, you know? It’s funny, because Arrested Development is tied to Andy Richter in a few different ways. For me personally, after I did Andy Richter, one of the next things I did was a show called Quintuplets for a season for Fox, and this was while Arrested Development was on. I used to go over and hang out on their set.
AVC: Is that how you got your spot on the show?
AR: Probably. I’m friends with a lot of people over there. Will Arnett’s one of my best friends, and I knew some of the writers there. And David Cross, I’ve known for a million years. But I would just kind of go over and hang out. The people on Quintuplets were great, but I wasn’t a producer on that show, and it wasn’t exactly my taste. It was like a teen comedy. So I used to go over to Arrested Development to just hang around another critically acclaimed, doomed failure. [Laughs.]
Actually, the first time I ever met Mitch Hurwitz, he openly told me, “There but for the grace of Gail Berman”—who was president of Fox at the time—“goes Arrested Development.” He said if our circumstances had been switched, where they were on under the regime when we were on, that they would have been the show that was cancelled, and we would have been the show that out of a guilt complex, was given three full seasons to try and make it. Fox got so hammered. And I know from people in the cast of Arrested Development, going to TCA critics’ events, the people from Fox were just openly questioned. [Accusingly.] “Well here’s another show like Andy Richter Controls The Universe that you’re gonna put on the air. You’re gonna make it, and you’re not going to support it. You’re going to throw it away. Why should we get behind Arrested Development, when you’re just going to do what you’ve done to Andy Richter Controls The Universe?” And prior to that to there was The Tick, and The Tick was kind of like that. And Gail Berman, she got to be in charge of the whole network, and she got to leave Arrested on for a little to see if it could garner an audience.
AVC: Do you think it was a Gail Berman/Fox thing that they weren’t able to hold onto these shows, or does every network have those shows that they should have held onto, but they couldn’t?
AR: I really like Gail. I think Gail’s a great television executive, and I think there, at the time—I don’t know if it’s still the case—they had a really young, energetic development staff that seemed fairly devoted, especially in comedy, to putting on interesting, funny, good stuff. And it would get up to a certain point on the corporate structure, then it would hit a wall of not-understanding. Like the people who were right next to the big piles of money would sort of say, “Where’s the car crashes and the big titties?”
AVC: You guys did have a pretty good amount of titties for a primetime sitcom, so they couldn’t have been mad about that.
AR: That always made me very uncomfortable. I mean, I’ll say the filthiest things in the world, but when it comes down to it, I’m kind of a prude. All the sort of romantic entanglements they had me in… I never ever thought I’d be in a situation where I’d have to be doing love scenes. I figured all I’d have to worry about was falling down stairs, not figuring out how to do love scenes. People say it’s not that exciting, and it really isn’t. It’s actually kind of mortifying to have to be semi-nude and making out in bed with somebody.
AVC: You were talking about shows you find kind of mediocre being on too long. Which ones do you watch, better or for worse?
AR: Well… [Pause.] It’s such a difficult atmosphere for comedy, and so good comedy is heading up in strange places, like Adult Swim. There’s a new show called Delocated that a friend of mine, Jon Glaser, is responsible for. It’s about a family in the witness-protection program. It’s really funny, and I really enjoy it. There’s also an animated show called Metalocalypse which is about a death-metal band—the biggest band on earth—that’s on Adult Swim, too, and I think that’s really great. And other than that, comedy-wise, I like Eastbound & Down—and I’m not just naming the shows that my friends are on, but I actually do like them [Chuckles.] In terms of comedy that’s on the regular dial… I like 30 Rock and The Office a lot. [Hesitating.] I don’t know. Comedy on television—it doesn’t seem like a very good time for it, so around our house, we end up watching things like Top Chef more. [Laughs.]
That becomes the supposed scourge of the television people like me—our existence is this reality TV that you listen to people talk about like it’s corroding the dial. They’re just game shows, and television has always had game shows, and they’re just these new hybrids of them that are pretty interesting, you know? There’s a lot of garbage, too. You know the sort of good-looking people in fake soap-opera-type stuff, the morbid fascination with disintegrating celebrities. I don’t have any interest in that, really. It’s kind of a bummer. And also, a lot of what we watch is just kind of based around stuff that we can watch with the kids, which is a lot of food things. Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, we watch that a lot. I can’t keep up with things. There’s all kinds of obligation TV that I’m supposed to be watching—like, I’ve never seen a moment of The Wire. Even though [Andy Richter Controls The Universe supervising producer] Matt Weiner’s a friend of mine, I’ve seen maybe two episodes of Mad Men. I’m just terrible about that kind of stuff.
AVC: Well, you won’t get a guest spot on there talking like that.
AR: I know, I know, so maybe you shouldn’t print that.
AVC: Here’s a technical question about Andy Richter Controls The Universe: What are the ins and outs of creating and wearing a suit made of puppies?
AR: Well, somebody makes a coat with lots of pockets on it. It was really frustrating, and I think you can actually see the tension in my hand if you look at it, because all the puppies were squirming, and I was really nervous about one of them squirming out, falling, and breaking its neck, so it was sort of nerve-racking. And heavy. But adorable. I think we did another puppy bit, too, where I just got to play with puppies. People like dogs better than they like people, especially puppies. You can’t ever go wrong showing them.
AVC: When did you find out about the role you’ll be playing when Conan takes over The Tonight Show?
AR: [Chuckles.] Well, I sort of have yet to find out exactly what it is. Conan said that Joel Godard, the announcer from Late Night, wasn’t going to be coming over, and they wanted to get a new announcer that could also be involved in comedy bits and interact with Conan live on the air. Basically just give him somebody to talk to. I guess, like, I was number one on the wish list of people that they thought about doing it. I don’t even know who else was on the list. I want to ask, just out of curiosity. [Laughs.] I guess he’d been mulling it over for a while, and then finally Jeff Ross, the producer, said, “Why don’t you just call him, and shut up about it already?” So he called and asked me if I’d be into it, and I was. I hadn’t really thought about it or anything, but as he was talking to me about it, it immediately dawned on me how nice it would be to go back to work with friends on a show as immediate as a show like that is. Just being able to come up with an idea in the morning and putting it on TV that night is really fantastic, and really something I didn’t expect to miss as much as I have in the last nine years. I’m absolutely thrilled to get out of the development sausage-grinder where you have to ask permission to make television, and then wait six months, and then be told, “No.”
AVC: So you prefer the stability of this for the full-time gig vs. the freedom but uncertainty of the development world?
AR: Now I do. Now that I’ve been in it… I had some ambitions, and questions that I wanted to answer, like “How will I do out there on my own, and could I handle my own show?” To varying degrees and varying success, the questions are sorta answered. And I’m still going to continue to try to do other stuff. Probably not right away, but definitely part of what we talked about was that there will be flexibility in this job, so I could still go and do a movie role. I mean, I don’t know if I’m gonna to be going to New Zealand for two years to make the next Lord Of The Rings or something. And I’m still going to be writing stuff and trying to continue to develop different things whether I’m gonna be in them or not, so there’s gonna be a lot of leeway. Yeah, the stability of it is absolutely wonderful, especially in this atmosphere. I mean, aside from this economy, just television is so difficult to get anything going, especially comedy-wise. Everyone’s just scared to pull the trigger and spend money on anything. You need to have movie stars attached or executive-producing to make anything happen on any kind of real scale, just to be able to go somewhere. I have sort of a skill in being a wise-ass that I haven’t utilized in a while. [Chuckles.]
AVC: Did you see the article about you in The New York Times recently? Sidekicks are allegedly coming back.
AR: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’ve seen versions of that article—I read that article in 1993. So I don’t know, I don’t really think about it as any kind of historical move. I do think it’s just plain more interesting to see two people interacting on a regular basis than to just see one guy reading cue cards and holding up graphics. Conan is an amazing producer, in addition to being a great talk-show host. One of his strengths, especially while he was learning how to be a talk-shot host, was that he really understands what it takes to put together an amazing television show. And I think he’s always understood that basic rule: Have two people talk. Because even if it’s about the one person, that person is always better in conversation. You know, it’s not a complicated idea, I just think that it’s hard to find the chemistry of something like that. And he and I had it, it kind of grew organically on Late Night, and to bring that back kind of makes him more comfortable. I think that having me be there, this new thing won’t seem so lonely.
AVC: But you’re still figuring out still how your role will be different?
AR: I don’t know. I haven’t started to work actively on the show yet, and we’ve had some conversations about it, but the conversations have been more about what we don’t know than what we know. Conan and Jeff Ross even told me, “Your role, we don’t go on the air until June 1, and we still don’t know what it is.” Which is the way it was on Late Night. And he knows enough that you don’t know until you’re there and doing it. Everything does have to happen organically, and it does have to grow, because all your best intentions mean nothing. It all has to happen on air, and it all has to happen with some time, because it doesn’t work any other way.
AVC:Can you anticipate at all how the show will be different now that it’s in Los Angeles?
AR: Proximity to movie stars, I guess. I think that the show will be more conversational and less—I don’t want to say it’s going to be less absurd. Once again, this all could be completely meaningless, because it isn’t until the show’s on the air that we’re gonna know. But I think a lot of the absurd character stuff is probably not going to fly at 11:30. That isn’t to say that the show isn’t going to be absurd, but probably more absurd in a conversational kind of way, as opposed to having Masturbating Bear. So I just think there’s not going to be a lot of Masturbating Bear. Like I said, we may find that America cries out for some form of masturbating animal, and we’ll have to answer that cry, but I think as it is, there’s generally a feeling among the people that write the show, that that’s the old show, and there’s some kind of effort to make it a new show.
AVC: After you left Late Night, you discussed how you didn’t like going on these college tours and being asked all the same questions about Conan and the staring contest and stuff like that. Are you sort of bracing yourself for having to go back to that?
AR: Oh yeah. Being asked the same question, I’m sure it’s that same for you and always having to ask the same question. There’s a certain amount of repetition that happens in any job. And that’s not going to say that I’m not going to do some personal appearances. I don’t know if it would just be talking about me or talking about the show again, but that’s part and parcel with anything you do. One of the things Late Night afforded me was that my wife and I ran into Tony Bennett on the street corner once in New York, and we stopped and chatted with him. And that’s a real gift that was given to me: that I have enough of a relationship with Tony Bennett to stop and chat with him on a street corner. And as we were stopping and chatting, some people stopped and stared at us like we were some sort of museum exhibit, and one of the people stepped forward and interrupted our conversation by saying to Tony Bennett, “So, did you leave your heart in San Francisco?” And he just smiled and went, “[Awkward laughter.] Yeah, yeah I did.” And when the person stepped away, my wife said, “How often have you heard that?” He says, “Thousands of times. Thousands of times.” In this just kind of smiling-but-tired voice. You get gifts, you get to know Tony Bennett, but there’s little payments for those gifts. Like having to say whether you left your heart in San Francisco a thousand times.
AVC: What was the mood like on the final episode of Conan?
AR: It was melancholy, but still pretty jubilant. It was odd for me, too, because I secretly knew that I was coming back, and not many people there knew I was coming back, so for me, I was kind of—it was exciting, just the notion of getting back into it. But some of the entire crew and staff stayed behind to do Jimmy Fallon’s show, some of the people retired. Very few people were left in the lurch in between. A lot of the people were sad it was ending, but excited about the new thing. But you know, there’s just a lot of people moving from New York to California. Mostly what I was doing was just answering questions about how long does it take to drive from Calabasas to Burbank. So I think it was kind of unexpected closure with all kinds of other stuff going on. I don’t think in large meta ways about things—but I was sitting in the makeup chair getting ready, and the title credits came on, and the opening music came on, and I said to the people in makeup, “Holy shit, this really is the last Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” It didn’t hit me until it was already on. I knew he was taking over The Tonight Show, and I had a couple of years to get used to that idea, but I never really thought about that meaning that the other show was going to end. I just was thinking about the new thing. I think there’s also a lot of disbelief over it being 16 years. Just—15 or 16 years, that’s a long goddamn time to be on the air.
AVC: You recently started working as a commercial director. How did this come about?
AR: I started out in Chicago at Columbia College, the film school, and like most people who started working on production in Chicago, I started working on commercials. Because that’s what there is in Chicago in terms of film production. And a guy named Cliff Grant and I were PAs together, and we were friends. And then I went off and did what I did, and he stayed working on production in Chicago, and eventually became the executive producer of the company there. And we stayed in touch over the years, and a couple of years ago, he asked me “Can I start putting your name out as a possible director of television commercials?”
Especially in comedy, having been in production and having been to film school, I think I probably have more of a holistic understanding of what it takes to film something than a lot of actors do. Because I have hung lights and unloaded trucks and gotten everybody coffee and rigged special effects and props and all kinds of different things, he knew I would be able to handle this. And it’s something I’ve always thought of, when I’m working on different comedy things—I just feel fairly confident that I can direct comedy. I don’t think that I could direct anything Baz Luhrmann has made, but I think I could definitely direct your typical fart-joke comedy, and know how to get the most out of the fart joke. And I think that’s kind of what Cliff was sensing. He started putting my name out. And I don’t really have a reel to speak of, but I directed some stuff for the Missouri Lottery, some spots, and I was just in Chicago to speak with some agencies, and it kind of coincided with the Tonight Show stuff, and it might make it complicated. But it’s one of the many irons I’m attempting to keep in the fire, because there are times I get tired of the passivity of being an actor. And I would like to get frustrated with some other area of the business, as opposed to being frustrated by the one I’ve been attempting for the last 20 years.
AVC:Do you feel like in the time between leaving and returning to Conan, your attitude about entertainment has evolved at all? Do you think you’re more cynical? What have you learned about what it takes to make you happy?
AR: Well number one, anything I do in show business is way less important than what I do as a husband and father. And in comparative terms, I don’t even give a shit about show business. It’s fun, and I’m really lucky to have a fun job, but when you compare it to being married and having kids, there’s no contest. Now, that sounds kind of trite. Of course, I care more about my family than about television shows. But honestly, when you’re out there working with people, sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. There’s a lot of people where it doesn’t feel like they care more about their families, so that’s one of the first things.
And also, now I really do feel it’s easier—I feel more like I’m a showbiz professional. This is my job, it’s going to have ups and downs. I’m lucky to be able to do this for a living, but I also do feel like I don’t anticipate changing the world. All I can really do is do a good job when I’m hired to do a job, and be happy at home.
AVC:What other projects do you have coming up?
AR: Well, last year I shot a movie in New Zealand called They Came From Upstairs, which was kind of a Goonies kid-adventure movie in which I play one of the dads. It’s sort of like a group of young kids have to battle this invading force of aliens. So that’s coming out, I don’t know exactly when. When you start seeing little aliens in Happy Meals. And then I’m on two Nickelodeon shows, The Mighty B! and The Penguins Of Madagascar. And then I’m just developing a couple different screenplays and waiting for The Tonight Show to start.
AVC: Were you always an animation fan?
AR: Well, I mean, who doesn’t like cartoons? The Simpsons was such a huge formative thing, and that’s one of the reasons that with Andy Richter Controls The Universe, I was happy to be on Fox. They could’ve had all their programming counter to what I think should be on television. They deserve a lot of credit for putting on such a fantastic show—probably to me, in terms of important television, it’s The Sopranos and The Simpsons. And that’s the shortlist.