When Andy Richter started out as the co-host/sidekick on NBC's risky fledgling talk show Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 1993, he was derided by critics as ballast—or, worse yet, an embarrassment. When he left the show seven years later, many of those critics wondered aloud how the show would maintain its greatness without him. Richter hasn't exactly been ubiquitous since leaving Late Night, but he's already acted in more than a half a dozen movies, many of which come out later this year. In addition to Robert Altman's Dr. T & The Women, Richter will appear in this summer's Scary Movie 2, as well as smaller, more intriguing projects like the Mr. Show movie (Run, Ronnie, Run) and Louis C.K.'s Chris Rock-produced Pootie Tang. He's even working on a project that could put him back on network television, having shot a pilot (tentatively titled Andy Richter Rules The Universe) for Fox. Richter recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his claim to fame, his crippling depression, and the embarrassment of shirtlessness on Just Shoot Me.
The Onion: What do you want to talk about in this interview?
Andy Richter: I don't know. Maybe questions that don't have anything to do with me. Those are always good. I don't know. Just the stuff that isn't like, "Who was your favorite guest on the Conan show?" Or, "Did it bother you to not win staring contests?" Because I used to do college dates, and I actually had to stop doing them because it was just… David Sedaris, in one of his books, has a great thing about how, when you work in front of the public, you really want to view people as unique, special, and rare unto themselves. But, then, the more time you spend, the more you realize everyone's the fucking same. I used to do these college dates. I'd go and I'd make a month's rent in one night, so it was kind of hard to say no, but I had to stop doing them because it got so sad, like, people in the Q&A part going, "Are you ever gonna win a staring contest? Ha ha ha!" And it's not their fault. That's, I guess, a relatively clever question if you're a fan of the show, but after the 10th time, it started to make me feel really sad.
O: Did you ever think about printing up a Frequently Asked Questions list?
AR: Yes, it's occurred to me, but that might make me seem like a dick. Yeah, I had to quit doing it. I just got tired. It's kind of my fault, but when I did these college dates, it's because a friend of the producer of the Conan show has an agency that does that kind of stuff, does book tours and that kind of public speaking. He's a public-speaking kind of agent. And he asked me to do this stuff, and I was like, "What the hell would I do? I'm not a stand-up comedian. I don't…" And he said, "Well, do whatever." So I thought, "I'll talk about the show, but I'll also try to throw in my personal take on my travels, and my journey through show business." A lot of people basically do a one-sided interview. So I did that, and I found out more and more that, as I did it, nobody gave a shit what I thought. They just wanted to know, "Who's the Masturbating Bear? Who's in that? Who came up with that?" That was always another question: "Who came up with the Masturbating Bear?" Where do you go from that?
O: Those speaking engagements pay pretty well, though.
AR: Yeah, like I said, it was a month's rent and then some. It wasn't crazy, but it was, shit, a month's rent to go talk for a couple or three hours. But I had to quit.
O: So now you do movies.
AR: Now I've been doing some movies.
O: A lot of movies.
AR: Yeah. It looks really good. I hired a publicist when I decided to leave the Conan show, which is a first. There was an NBC publicist who was very nice and very good to me and would get me lots of opportunities for stuff, but I didn't have my own. Now, I have my own publicist, so whenever I form a nicely rounded turd, they have to put something in the paper about it. I think by next month there's going to be seven movies coming out that I'm in, which is a lot, but some of them are kind of a hiccup and you'll miss me. Still, it looks great in Variety. I was in a Robert Altman movie. I worked with Barry Sonnenfeld [on the Dave Barry adaptation Big Trouble]. I got to work with friends like Bob Odenkirk and David Cross from Mr. Show. I was in the Mr. Show movie, in the Pootie Tang movie that Louis C.K. directed and that Chris Rock is producing. I got to do a lot of fun, cool stuff, and I'm going to Vancouver for six weeks to do a movie [The Guest] directed by David Zucker.
O: Is there any discussion of a starring role, your own vehicle?
AR: Yeah, there's been discussion about it. I know enough to not believe anything until there's a car waiting outside to take me to wherever it is. But there's been talk of it. I think it'll work, but I also have been kind of leery of jumping right into doing some shitty, retarded comedy that they just slap together with two guys who got fired from Frasier or something. I don't mind that the movies I've been doing have been small roles, because I'm interested in a career as a character actor. I'm glad that there's a feeling of an organic kind of growth and not just leaving the Conan show to go right into Deuce Bigalow 2. I'm excited to be in the Mr. Show movie. It's a really small part, but I'm excited to just be a part of that.
O: That's the one I'm dying for.
AR: Yeah, and I've heard really great things about it. But working with Barry Sonnenfeld was really fun, too. That was really a good time. I'm interested to see that. It's all been pretty fun. It's a weird thing, though, because… well, first of all, I'm a miserable fuck. I don't quite have the mechanical apparatus in my brain to actually enjoy anything.
O: Spoken like a true comedy professional.
AR: It's been really fun, in a sense, to do all these movies, but with the good things in my life, I feel like, "Yeah, that's good, whatever. But what about these shitty things? What are we going to do about those, gentlemen?" Around the boardroom in my brain, talking to all the different associates there. What I tend to take out of the movie experience is what's wrong with them, or what's bad about them. It's a sickness that I try to change, especially now that I have a child. I don't want to create a miserable child. I'd like to have a child with the capacity for joy. But the thing about movies is, I realize now that the things that I've kind of… There are things from the Conan show that I didn't expect to miss. There's comfort in the consistency of working on the same thing. It's exciting to be in all these different movies, but it isn't that fun. It's a hotel room, and nothing is sadder than a hotel room. I have found, too, that movie sets, especially if they're not in L.A. or New York, are a hotbed of alcoholism. I did a movie in Florida, did a couple of weeks on it, and all the people had already been there. They're very nice people, but when I got there, there was this feeling of, "We've gone everywhere and tried everything that you could possibly want to do, and we've decided the best thing to do is go to the hotel bar and get bombed every single night. If you try and experiment and go and see the town, you're a fool." You work all day and get back to the hotel, and you don't want to look at those four walls or the TV, so you go to the hotel bar and juice it up. That's something I'm leery about. I don't worry about being an alcoholic or anything. It's just that I'm depressive, and it's just like, "Oh, God, this is a load of laughs." Also, I'm still trying to plug away in television, which, in terms of my dream come true, isn't really… My dream is to be Peter Sellers, except without…
O: Only nicer.
AR: Yeah, exactly. Without the borderline personality disorder. To be him, or to be, I don't care, Charles Durning or Ned Beatty. Just to be a character actor that works in movies for a long time and does good stuff.
O: You're not going to flame out that way.
AR: I hope not. There's always that possibility. I still think there's something for me to do there that would be beneficial for me, both artistically and professionally. I'm going to keep plugging away at TV, in part because it keeps you in one place. Another thing from the Conan show is the freedom that we had, which wasn't because the people in charge trusted our artistic choices, but because they didn't give a fuck about it. It was the farm report to them, and it didn't matter what we did. I didn't really realize how much I would miss that. With the pilot I'm working on, I've actually had, compared to some of the stories I hear, a really smooth ride. There weren't people who came in and said, "Hello, this is another person who can tell you what to do on your show." We didn't have that on the Conan show. One guy would watch in Burbank, if he happened to be in his office while we were rehearsing. He might call and say, "Don't let the priest fuck rabbits." But that was about it.
O: Can you talk about the pilot you're working on?
AR: Yeah. It was originally titled Anything Can Happen, but now it might be titled Andy Richter Controls The Universe. They wanted to get "Andy" in the title, so I just thought, well, if they're going to try and do that, I'd better come up with something that I like a little better. I thought that, with Andy Richter Controls The Universe, no one could possibly take that seriously. I was afraid that if they put it in the title, it would somehow end up being Everybody Loves Andy, like Everybody Loves Raymond, which is a very good show, but the worst title ever. Whoever said that should be the title really should be selling cars now.
O: People remember it.
AR: Yeah, but they remember Vietnam, too. I play a guy who is a writer… It's Andy Richter Controls The Universe, and it's what you'd expect: It's an office comedy. I play a guy who's a technical writer at a big corporation, and the narrator of the story, and because I'm an aspiring writer, my flights of fancy are included in the storytelling. I haven't found the right word, but it's kind of like a subjective narrative. It's basically a narrator who can lie and fuck with the audience and then take back his lies and show the way things really happened. Which is what attracted me to the show in the beginning. I hope it's something that we can…
O: Keep in there by the time it airs?
AR: Yeah, partly. That'll stay in there, but I want to fully utilize it. I feel like it would be a shame to put jet engines on this thing and then only fly it five feet off the ground. I hope we can do some weird, fucked-up stuff with it as time goes on. We have a pilot done that's looking pretty good. It's not done-done, but I've seen a cut. My deal is with Fox, and we're waiting to hear if they want to pick it up. They're finishing it up, because it's a rough cut now, so it needs tweaking. There were notes, but very minor notes, which is a good sign. I had to change some voiceover stuff, and there were minor changes in the cutting, but it all seems real positive, which of course makes me extremely distrustful. It would be great if it happened. I went into the process in full bristle: "How are you fucking guys going to make me into an idiot?" It just ended up being like, "What a sort of post-graduate way to feel. Just calm down, we're all adults here. It's a business and, yeah, you can't just have cotton candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are actually advertisers. There's lots of money involved, and it's not putting on a show or making videos with your friends. All kinds of grown-up stuff that isn't really fun, but you gotta do it."
O: You talked about things you miss about being on Late Night. Do you miss the media referring to you as "a second banana with appeal"?
AR: Oh, Jesus Christ, no. That second-banana shit. There's never any first banana. Where are the first bananas? "Today, President George W. Bush, the first banana of the nation…" All of that shit was just kind of… There's a lot of shit in comedy that's par for the course, and you just have to take it. I did a guest shot on Just Shoot Me that has aired twice now. In it, I play a motivational speaker, and I didn't even realize… My wife said she read somebody online saying it was a rip-off of Chris Farley's motivational speaker, which didn't even fucking occur to me. I was like, "Oh, Jesus Christ." I just showed up and they paid me well, and I did what they told me to. That's a side note. But in the script, I'm a recovered alcoholic, and then something that Laura San Giacomo's character says to me sends me off the deep end. I go on a bender and show up and tear off my shirt and drop my pants and run through in my underwear. I read that when the script first came, and I realized, "Oh, no, this is not considered, like, a Richter chestnut. This guy's gonna take off, and you can't get him in a show without having him take off his clothes." I took off my clothes a couple times on Conan, but the only reason I did was because, well, most of the time it was motivated. There were a couple of times it might have happened out of sheer comedy-writer laziness, and then me being weak and going, "Well, all right. If we don't have anything else, I guess I'll resort to that prop humor." But in reading that script, I thought, "I don't want to fucking take off my clothes. I don't want to." But they bought me for this period of time, this is what they want, and there's no sense in fighting this. If I'd said, "I don't want to do that," it'd be like, "Well, you've done it before." But there's something inherently demeaning about it. If they'd hired Rob Lowe to do a guest bit in the same part, and had him get drunk and tear off his clothes, the reaction wouldn't be comedy, because his is the kind of body that you'd want to see naked. The comedy inherent in me taking my clothes off is, "He should be ashamed of his body, but look at him! Look at fatty go! He's taking off his clothes! That is so funny, because it's so wrong that we should see his body." Lest they think I'm not knee-deep in shame at all times, I'm not. I just have the ability to put it on hold for a laugh. That's another thing where it's just kind of irritating. You're a clown in a lot of ways. I did say, at a certain point, that I'm going to make my living by making people laugh, and part of that is shitting yourself.
O: What do you really think of Conan O'Brien? He seems like a huge asshole.
AR: [Laughs.] Nice try. No, I think he's a brilliant man. He's a brilliant, brilliant man who I hope doesn't become as fucked-up as other talk-show hosts. Because there's something about that job that seems to make people weird. There's a part of doing that job that really makes him happy and is very fulfilling, but then I think that that fulfillment seems more substantial than it actually is. I said something once in an article, and he told me he found it very chilling: I said that having met David Hasselhoff 18 times is not going to keep the ghosts away when you're lying in a nursing-home bed. I still kind of feel the same way. But he's happy doing it. I just was by there. I've been in L.A. for six weeks, and I came back home [to New York] for three days, and his birthday just happened to fall on one of those days, so I went and hung out there. I was just talking to somebody about how glad I was to see him, and they were asking if I miss doing the show in front of the audience. I was like, "Hell, no. I don't miss performing for tourists, most of whom are mad that we're not Rosie. I don't miss that at all. They're despots, those studio-audience people." And Conan was saying, "I still love it. I still love dancing like a monkey in front of people who came in on a bus." He really, truly is a rare mind. He has a wonderful, wonderful comedic mind.
O: He said that we should ask you about your homecoming crown.
AR: Oh. Yeah, I was homecoming… No, it wasn't homecoming; it was prom. I was prom king. Which is actually saying I was the sixth most popular, because the five who were on homecoming were automatically disqualified from prom, so of course I have to look at it that way. It was really sort of touching to be nominated. To be king of anything is really great. Not a lot of people get to do that. But when they put the crown on me, it didn't fit my head, which isn't unusual because I have some sort of disorder that makes my head the size of a pumpkin. I looked inside the crown, and it was just a ricotta-cheese tub. They'd put velvet and fake jewels and white fur and dots of black on it with a marker so it'd look like ermine around it. But at its base was a ricotta-cheese tub.
O: Are you the only person in comedy history who was popular in high school?
AR: No, I don't think so. I don't think so.
O: People in comedy always say they were tortured geeks in high school, whether they were or not. It's almost reversed when you're an adult: You don't want to have been popular in high school.
AR: I don't know what their problem is. It just doesn't occur to me to lie about that. There's plenty of stuff I lie about, but not that. I mean, I was always kind of funny, and people always tended to like me. I've always tried to be nice to people, so that sort of translates into popularity, I guess. It's not like my virulent virginity, which I could not get rid of, was a testament that I wasn't popular, or at least popular in the way I wanted to be. No, people like me. Also, my folks would let people drink at our house. That was a big key to it, too.
O: You set a record for the most money ever won on Celebrity Jeopardy.
AR: No, I didn't, actually. I think I was third. Some guy from The Nanny is first, and then Jerry Orbach is above me. I think I'm third. It's not much, but it was enough.
O: Does that make you smart, or are celebrities as a rule dumb?
AR: Well, I refer to Celebrity Jeopardy as the short-bus Jeopardy, because it is a lot easier. Like, there was a whole column basically naming stores in New York.
O: Did you get to keep the money, or did you have to give it to some charity?
AR: No, I gave it to the Southern Poverty Law Center. That's the deal. But you do get Sony merchandise. Someone had told me beforehand that they give you a catalog and you pick, I think it was $10,000 of Sony merchandise. You just pick out of the catalog whatever you want to.
O: Is that whether you win or lose?
AR: That's whether you win or lose—everybody gets that—so I was all amped up for that, like, "All right!" I love gadgets, and it's just like, "Sure, we could use another huge TV." But then I found out going into it… I think it was Jon Stewart who told me that now they send you a prize package, and that we were the first class of Celebrity Jeopardy people they did that with. It was still an incredibly generous package of stuff, but I was so… This is how fucking petty I am: I was outraged because I didn't get the thing that I wanted, and also because a lot of what they gave me were duplicates. It was the exact same TV I had, and then a DVD player… I had already spent way too much money on home electronics, so I wanted to be able to get more things that I didn't need, not the same things that I don't need and already had. I was so incensed that I went onto the web site and added up the retail prices of the things they gave me, and it was about $8,000 or so, and I was saying to my wife, "Can you believe it? Not even ten grand." And she's like, "Calm down. This isn't very attractive, the way you're behaving." It was still good stuff, but most of it I gave away. I still have a mini component stereo that came in a box the size of a go-cart, so I don't know what's mini about it, but I still have that in storage because it's too big to send to anyone. I got a digital camera and a digital camcorder that's great, and that I'm using a lot now that we have the baby.
O: When was your baby born?
O: Boy or girl?
AR: A boy. It's a very nice thing to have a baby.
O: How has it affected your life?
AR: It really has made me a lot happier. I'm not as miserable as I'm making myself out to be, but I do have… This is one of the things that's so great about The Sopranos: That guy understands depression. There are so many things there where you feel like, "Yes, exactly!" And one of the things is when Tony Soprano says, "My mother made it so that I have the inability to experience joy." I don't mean to say that my mother did that to me, but I understand that. There are times when I feel like, "Here I am on a beautiful beach, and look at that sunset and what a great day it's been. Hmm… I don't know. I'm still not being carried away on a cloud of ecstasy." At the picnic, I don't look at the sky and see the clouds; I'm worried about the ants. Having the baby in my life has given me real palpable joy on a daily basis. A few times a day, I get the feeling of real joy, which is absolutely unbelievable and in some ways really transformative and has completely shifted my priorities to where I don't… I want to do well with my career, but I don't really give a shit. I want to facilitate having a wonderful life with my family, and I happen to have stumbled on a racket in which there seems to be a relatively short line between the two points of where I am now and mad money. I don't want to do shit, and I'm not gonna do shit, but it definitely takes the edge off feeling like I've got to constantly be doing fulfilling work that's important, and I can't drop my pants and run across the set of Just Shoot Me. Absolutely I can.
Conan O'Brien on Andy Richter
Conan O'Brien: He's a man-child. He's Faulkner's man-child come to life. He has the biggest head of anybody in television history. Ask him about the crown he had to wear when he was homecoming king of his high school. To make a crown for him, they had to get a giant plastic drum. The industrial-size cottage-cheese drum was the only thing that would fit his head. He throws the coolest parties. He always wears a red smoking jacket and an ascot and a monocle at his parties, and really cool, eclectic people will be there. If you go to Andy's party, you might see Willie Nelson in the corner talking to Richard Dawson from Family Feud. You just never know what you'll see. Or the two of them talking to some really cool Beat poet from the '50s. You just never know what you're going to see. And, uh, he ruined my life.