The cult sitcom Andy Richter Controls The Universe posited its protagonist as both a loveably doughy everyman and a Walter Mitty-esque dreamer whose overactive imagination plays out in a machine-gun barrage of goofy fantasy detours. It’s like Run Lola Run re-imagined as a workplace comedy. The show takes place on two planes: a fantasy realm of infinite possibilities (the show’s original title was Anything Can Happen) and the real world, where Andy Richter barely controls his own life, let alone the universe. These fantasy sequences demand an endless stream of comic invention; they inhabit a Hellzapoppin’ comic universe where Richter wears a coat filled with puppies in an attempt to make himself more likeable, and confers in every episode with the racist, hateful, long-dead founder of the evil corporation he works for.
Fresh off his sidekick gig on Late Night With Conan O’Brien,Richter stars as an aspiring writer who prostitutes his wares writing instruction manuals for weapons systems for a giant multinational monstrosity. At work, Richter desperately pines for a gorgeous receptionist (Irene Molloy) going out with his ridiculously handsome, dashing best friend (James Patrick Stuart), and goofs around with weasel-faced, sweet-natured illustrator Jonathan Slavin and foxy boss Paget Brewster. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was part of Universe’s talented team of writer-producers, and Stuart feels like a rough draft of Don Draper: He’s Jon Hamm’s iconic ad genius with all the good looks, grace, and sonorous voice, but none of the angst, depth, or brilliance.
Universe twists sitcom conventions into dark, Seinfeld-ianknots. A typically warped episode involves Richter trying to atone for enjoying hot sex with an anti-Semite by becoming a friend of the Jewish people. The show was never afraid to mine the humor inherent in cancer, prison, cults, identical twins sharing the same woman, suicide, grief counseling, racism, and pimps. Yet because of its cast’s likeability, Universe is the most genial of dark comedies. Richter re-teams with O’Brien for the series’ crowning achievement, a hilarious episode that casts O’Brien as a gleefully deranged multi-millionaire whose mother died doing what she loved best, “committing suicide.” The long-overdue Andy Richter Controls The Universe DVD set compiles 19 episodes, including five that never aired in the show’s aborted original run. With his endlessly clever, dead-before-its-time sitcom, Richter conclusively emerged from his old bosses’ outsized shadow. It’s just too bad the world didn’t notice at the time.
Key features: Some fawning making-of featurettes and a pair of affectionate, amusing audio commentaries from Richter and creator Victor Fresco.