Andy Richter, best late-night-show sidekick ever.

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March 31 2009 12:22 PM

Andy Richter Comes in From the Rain

Why he's the best late-night-show sidekick of all time.

Andy Richter. Click image to expand.
Andy Richter 

Andy Richter—Conan O'Brien's Late Night sidekick from 1993 to the year 2000, a writer, actor, and comedian that we'll have to call a funnyman—will be abetting his old boss' silliness when The Tonight Show relaunches in June. TV fans were delighted to hear this news, none more so than Richter himself. Earlier this month, he discussed the extended predicament of his career in the manner of John Cusack in Say Anything (or, say, anything). "I really do feel like … I've been standing in a storm," he told the New York Post. "Someone opened a door and said, 'Get out of the rain.' " The new gig might well be the resolution of all his fruitless searches.

While the word Everyman has been tossed around rather loosely for the past 500 years or so, Richter, with his pillowy physique, Illinois inflections, and "Howdy, neighbor!" manner, actually fits the bill. On Late Night, he lent a Midwestern common touch—a quality shared, not for nothing, by Johnny Carson and David Letterman—to the antics of Bostonian Conan. On Andy Richter Controls the Universe—which puttered along for 19 episodes in 2002 and 2003 and is newly out on DVD—he played a thwarted fiction writer who was dissatisfied (but, crucially, not disgruntled) with his job composing technical manuals for Faceless Conglomerate & Co. On Andy Barker, P.I.—which stuck around for all of six episodes in 2007—he played a sunny accountant plunged into a spoof noir; the guy too nice to fight being drafted into service as a private dick. In the Madagascar kids films, he gives voice to a lemur.

It seems likely that Richter's averageness is the font of both his artistic successes and his commercial failures. Too square to be hip, too well-kempt for slob comedy, and too principled to pander, Richter exudes a normalness that renders him a misfit. But, though as wholesome as Garrison Keillor on the surface, he is as weird as anybody. In the moments that require his zaniest self, he suggests a subtle Chris Farley, with the crucial difference of seeming to prefer malted milkshakes to speedballs. In this old Conan segment—a joke on tawdry daytime talk shows—what makes his performance as a vainglorious hootchie work is the contrast between the clothes on his soft body (crop top, short shorts) and the polite way he cross his legs. The demeanor is both sassy and prim; the dissonance is both droll and goofy.

In Andy Richter Controls the Universe, he was at the eye of an absurdist storm. Here, as in Seinfeld or Newhartor Operation Shylock, the creator and the protagonist share a name. The only cosmos the fictional Andy Richter controls is the infinite space under his company-man haircut. Like the heroine of Ally McBeal—which briefly overlapped with Universe on Fox's schedule—he entertains fanciful visions. Whereas Ally was a full-blown neurotic, modest Andy was but a daydreaming melancholic. In the pilot, plotting to get a grating new office-mate fired by sabotaging his work, Andy hesitates after imagining the consequences for a military-contracting project. He envisages an animated scene of a dud torpedo bouncing off its target and, witnessing this impotence, mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to him.

James Thurber's 1939 story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is an obvious influence here, but—and this could make the DVD set a perfect amusement for these times—the show nods frequently to escapist entertainment that touches on the Depression and the years immediately following. There's a bit of Preston Sturges' classy madness to its screwiness and, in the steep skyscraper shots and sheer cleverness, something of the Coen Bros.' (Sturges-indebted) flicks like Barton Fink. Set up as a typical workplace comedy—the dramatis personae include an office playboy, a harridan of a female boss, and a cutie-pie receptionist who exists as the object of Andy's affections—the show nonetheless anticipates the unconventional funniness of Arrested Development and 30 Rock. It was fun while it lasted.

So now it's left to Richter, coming in from the cold, to revive the dying art of the late-night-show sidekick. The idiosyncratic Craig Ferguson of TheLate Late Show pilots a one-man ship. Jay Leno, like David Letterman, relies on his bandleader as a foil. (Since Doc Severinsen led the NBC Orchestra, bandleaders have been figures of seediness for hosts to play off—overly flashy guys imagined to smell of reefer and the perfume of loose women.) Both Jimmy Kimmel and E!'s Chelsea Handler rely on small Hispanic men working blue-collar jobs on their shows—an odd fact that could surely serve as fodder for a 10-page Latino-studies paper—but they are more like paralegals than junior partners. No, Richter must once again take the baton from Tonight's Ed McMahon—assuming that McMahon has not hocked it. But McMahon—an announcer with instincts of an Atlantic City salesman, which he was—acted as a hype man; he was the Danny Ray to Carson's James Brown. Richter, meanwhile, has been and should be the deferential Robin to Conan's absurdist Batman, a Boy Wonder with a Wonderbread deportment. Holy subordinate!

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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