Interview date: 11/16/2009
Run date: 11/24/2009
Once, he was the sidekick on NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and now he’s the sidekick on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” but somewhere in between these two gushy gigs, Andy Richter was a regular on the sitcom circuit. First came “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” which was followed by “Quintuplets.” Both were on Fox, and…well, let’s just say that one was better than the other, and it’s the one that was released on DVD. But it was Richter’s return to NBC that brought us his best (if shortest-lived) sitcom: “Andy Barker, P.I.” Oh, sure, it only lasted six episodes, but, by God, each and every one of those episodes was funny, which is probably what spurred Shout! Factory to release “Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series.” Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Richter about the origins of the series, his co-stars, and the less-than-thrilling experience of watching the network put almost no marketing push behind it whatsoever, but we also asked him about returning to work with Conan, his animation voiceover work, and whether or not we’ll see him turn up on “The Old Adventures of New Christine” again.
Andy Richter: Hey, Will, how are ya?
Bullz-Eye: I’m good, Andy. Good to talk to you. I appreciate you giving me a call.
AR: Sure, no problem!
BE: Well, I’m a big fan of “Andy Richter, P.I.,” as short-lived as it may have been…
AR: Oh, well, thank you!
BE: …but what were the origins of the show? I mean, obviously, I know that Conan (O’Brien) had a lot to do with it, but…
AR: Well, yeah, it was his idea. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) That’s definitely a lot.
AR: Yeah, that is a big part of it! But, no, I guess he’d had this idea for awhile. It was inspired by a mall he used to drive by. He has a place in Connecticut, out in the country, and he used to…I guess there’s some mall that he used to drive by, and there were stores on the bottom and offices on the top, and it just started to make him think about who has those offices. And then the notion of a guy, an accountant, who moves into an office previously occupied by a private investigator and ends up taking the private investigator work…it just kind of followed after that. But it was an idea that I think he’d had for awhile, and then Jonathan Groff, who was the head writer on the “Late Night” show for a number of years and who had been out in L.A. working on different shows, they had a chance to work together, and Conan said, “Well, hey, let’s try to develop this idea that I’ve had for a long time.” And they wrote it together, and apparently, in one of their earlier conversations about it, they decided that I would be a good choice to play the part.
BE: Which, actually, was something I was wondering about: how you came into the picture originally.
AR: Well, they didn’t tell me anything about it until they actually sold the pilot, which was…a kindness. (Laughs) Because I wasn’t stuck wondering whether it was going to happen. They kind of waited to sell this thing, and then asked me if I wanted to do it. And I was developing something for myself, and I was very, very happy to have an excuse to go ahead and do their thing instead. (Laughs)
BE: So how much time was there being them pitching it to you and you actually reading the script? I mean, did you have time to consider, “Geez, I wonder how this thing is going to play?”
AR: No, not really. I mean, they told me the idea, and then we talked about it. I don’t think it was that long that it took them to actually write the pilot script. But I was in…y’know, I was also a writer and producer on the show, so after that, I was in on the writing process. We did have, actually, the luxury of being able to write all of the episodes in advance. You know, normally, you’re writing as you’re shooting, but just the way this panned out in terms of it being a mid-season show, we were able to have some time to write all of the episodes, plan them, and shoot them. And the whole thing was actually shot in a fairly unusual way, in that we shot it like a movie, sort of out of sequence. So we would use a location, and we shot for various episodes in the same location or in the same studio, which doesn’t always happen. You’re usually just kind of shooting the one episode you’re going to do.
BE: Was there ever any point when you were filming this where it occurred to you that maybe it might be too smart for the average viewer?
AR: No. I never try to think that way, just because I think you put yourself in the position…and I’ve heard other people kind of vocalize it…where you go, “Well, I tried to do something smart and funny, and I guess they want dumb shit, so I’ll try and write dumb shit.” And, personally, just for what that means to me in a psychological sense, I wouldn’t want to do that. So I think you always have to be… (Hesitates) I mean, obviously, you can’t just write for yourself. It’s television. It’s not a poem. You know? (Laughs) You are trying to communicate, and you’re trying to cast a wide net when you’re coming up with the idea and when you’re writing the scripts, but you just have to make it. You just have to do the best job you can. Otherwise, it’s just too soul-deadening.
BE: Well, it seemed like you guys meshed pretty quickly. Certainly, you and Tony Hale had an instant camaraderie going on.
AR: Yes. We had known each other…
BE: …from “Arrested Development,” I guess.
AR: Yeah, we’d worked together, and, actually, when I did a show called “Quintuplets” on Fox, they were shooting “Arrested Development” there, and I used to go over there. Will Arnett’s a really good friend of mine and I used to go over and hang out with him. With all of them.
BE: Harve Presnell seems like the kind of guy who might’ve been intimidating to work with, and I say that A) just because he’d been around the block so many times, but also B) because of the kind of character he was playing.
AR: Yeah, I… (Hesitates) …I guess, yes, a little initially, but then when you meet him…he was just such a warm, normal person that it didn’t last. He talked a good game, too, about being a tough guy. But he was actually a real sweetheart.
BE: He had some of the best patter in TV history, I think.
AR: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he’s really great in the show.
BE: You and Clea also seemed to have a nice husband/wife feel to your performance.
AR: Yeah, very much so.
BE: Who would say was your favorite person to work with as far as a guest performer?
AR: Probably Amy Sedaris, just because she’s an old friend, and when you get a chance to do that with somebody that you’ve known forever, and here she is doing a show where I’m the quote-unquote star and getting to play an old, one-legged woman… (Laughs) …it’s one of the moments where you think, “Wow, my dreams really have come true…”
BE: Were you surprised when Shout! Factory came through a DVD release for the show?
AR: No, not really. I mean, I wasn’t really looking for it, and it’s flattering that it happens, but…I would’ve been shocked if we hadn’t been able to make something happen with it, because… (Laughs) …not to look at everything from the negative perspective, but, God, every piece of shit that travels through the goose of television gets put onto DVD! If them, then why not us?
BE: Well, not to disparage it, but I’m glad that “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” made it to DVD, too. (Laughs)
AR: Actually, this one makes more sense than that one, as far as the timing. I mean, “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” which took eight years to get released… it was strange that it took so long for it to come out.
BE: Still, you guys took a lot of care in making sure that it had special features on that set as well. I was really happy with it.
AR: Well, yeah, but…I wish I could take credit for that. (Laughs)
BE: Well, sure, but you contributed.
AR: Oh, yeah, I contributed, but that’s the company that puts it together, and they sort of do a lot of that stuff.
BE: Oh, of course. But some people can’t even be bothered to take the time to contribute to those sets, let alone seem to enjoy the process of it.
AR: That is true.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things. First off, you’ve been doing a fair amount of animation voiceover work. How are you enjoying “Penguins of Madagascar”?
AR: Oh, it’s great. It’s really a lot of fun. They’re great people to work with, and I also do “The Mighty B,” which is another Nickelodeon show, so…well, again, it’s kind of another dream come true, to be able to do cartoon voices! (Laughs) And, also, to get to do cartoon voices for two really funny, cool cartoons that my kids love and that I’m proud to have them love. It’s pretty great.
BE: Plus, you’ve got Amy Poehler on “The Mighty B,” so there’s the Will Arnett connection again.
AR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s all nepotism, regardless of what people tell you.
BE: Has there been any talk of you returning to “The New Adventures of Old Christine”?
AR: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I’m still friendly with everybody there, but I think that my character…you know, I’m sure that the possibility exists, but I think they’ve moved on to other… (Laughs) …other pathetic love interests for her.
BE: When you did “Cabin Boy,” did you sense that film might be a cult hit as opposed to a box office success?
AR: Oh, well, that was the first thing…well, it wasn’t the first thing I’d ever done, but it was so early on, and it was all so exciting. I didn’t know what to expect. You know, I still don’t know what to expect. It’s still incredibly hard. I’ve done a number of movies now, and you still don’t know if something’s going to be good or awful, or popular or not. It’s really difficult to know, because there’s so little that’s in your control, and there’s so much that can happen before you ever get around to knowing what it’s actually going to end up being like.
BE: Well, I will tell you that my daughter really enjoyed “Aliens in the Attic.”
AR: Oh, good!
BE: I haven’t seen it yet – she watched it with my wife – but she walked away a fan. Now, did you actually fly to New Zealand to film that?
AR: Yeah, I was in New Zealand for three months.
BE: What was that experience like? Had you ever been to New Zealand before?
AR: I hadn’t, but it was great. I really enjoyed being there, and, in fact, a friend of mine is going down there to work on something for three months, and I’m a little bit envious, actually. (Laughs) I was kind of tipping him off to where to go and what to expect, and as I was talking to him about it, I was feeling a little jealous.
BE: So how was it coming back to sit beside Conan again, as it were?
AR: Oh, it was great. And easy. I mean, I had to put my ego aside a little bit, because I was basically coming back to a job that I had done before. You know, it’s a new situation, but… (Trails off) Viewed from above, it’s me and him on a nightly talk show, so it is similar. In tone, the show is a little bit different, and we try and make it a little bit different than the old show. We try and tailor it to an earlier timeslot. But it’s pretty much the same, and it was very, very easy to fall back into it. And of all the times since I left “Late Night” and came back and was a guest, I was aware of how quickly I just kind of…I mean, I’d sometimes go back to “Late Night” just if I was in town. I’d go hang out and just hang around rehearsal, you know? Not even when I was on the show! So it was a very easy decision, and I was very happy to just be able to come to work here every day, where it’s a bunch of people that I know and like and trust, and just make comedy and put it on TV that night, then start over the next day. Trying to get things onto prime time, whether it’s network or cable, it’s all so convoluted, and there’s oh so many people that you have to please, and rewrites you have to go through, and then you have to wait for people to come back from vacation to judge you… (Laughs) It just takes months and months to get anything done. But there’s this wonderful immediacy to this that I just didn’t think I would miss as much as I did.
BE: When NBC sent out that press release about Conan being “the new king of late night,” was there a general rumble of, “Oh, geez, why did they do that?”
AR: Oh, God, I don’t even know. I’m so…you know, I’m sure there was, but that’s not the kind of thing that Conan and I talk much about. (Pauses) Because he knows I’ll probably make fun of him.
BE: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
AR: Probably “Andy Barker.”
BE: I thought you might say that.
AR: I mean, a lot of people loved “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” and I loved “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” but I think “Andy Barker” was… (Laughs) Look, I like story. And as much as “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” had great plot lines to it, there wasn’t the wonderful refillable structure of solving a crime. And I love that kind of refillable, repeatable format, and then you get a lot of comedy along the way. I find that very comfortable and very soothing…almost like a “Matlock.” (Laughs) Or “Murder, She Wrote.” That sort of, “There’s gonna be a murder, and someone’s gonna get their comeuppance!” And I really enjoyed the show, and I really felt like, “Well, his is a show that, if it was somebody else in it, I would watch it, because it’s such a nice hybrid of many different things.” It’s kind of unique and yet very, very familiar. But then, also, it’s not just the ideas, it’s the intangibles, too, and the execution of things, and we had about as good a cast as you could ever possibly find with the incredibly convoluted filtration system with which TV shows get cast. Everybody had a strong character that they could’ve really learned how to grow into and really found all kinds of different wrinkles with. And it just was not really supported.
BE: So how far out did you guys have it plotted beyond those six episodes?
AR: Oh, not really much. Because once we made those, then it was…like I said, it was a unique situation in that we were able to write the scripts and then shoot them all. Normally, you write a couple of episodes, you start shooting, and while you’re shooting, you’re still writing. And we had the luxury of finishing all of the scripts and then going and shooting them all. And after that was done, you know, nobody was really thinking that far ahead. Jonathan Groff would probably tell you he was, but I bet he probably wasn’t. (Laughs) And we just were waiting to see what would happen, but it became pretty evident pretty early on that… (Hesitates) You can tell by how much promotion a show gets outside of network airwaves, and one could make the case that that costs money, but it doesn’t really. It’s how much money they spend on, y’know, signs on the sides of buses and billboards and magazine ads. And there was not a dime spent on “Andy Barker” on that. So we got the notion pretty early that it wasn’t going to get a lot of support, and without that support, it’s very much an uphill battle.
BE: Would you like to blame Ben Silverman? Everyone else does.
AR: No, because he wasn’t even there.
BE: Even so…
AR: (Laughs) No, no, I don’t . Really, I don’t even know him. I’ve met him a couple of times, but I don’t know him. But, you know, I actually feel like if he’d been around he might even have stuck around for a little while. To be fair to the network, though, they already had a number of critically acclaimed comedies that people weren’t watching enough, so it wasn’t like they needed another one. But, y’know, I still feel like it could’ve been handled better. But that’s what everybody says. Every sour grapes has-been like me has to say, “It’s all their fault. They didn’t support us.”
BE: I’d still like to see an “Andy Barker” movie, but…
AR: Well, maybe. You never know. Who knows? Maybe if “The Tonight Show” takes off, we’ll re-do the “Columbo” / “McMillan and Wife” kind of mysteries and do some movies quarterly. (Laughs)
BE: The only problem, of course, would be replacing Harve Presnell.
AR: Yeah, that would be very hard. (Pauses) Yeah, actually, now that you mention it, I don’t know if it would be possible, or if anybody would really feel like it, because he was such a vital part of the composition of the show that…I wouldn’t even want to try and replace him.
BE: Oh, well. Well, sorry to end on such a dour note, but it was really good talking to you, Andy. Thanks a lot.AR: Thanks very much. Bye-bye!