When Conan O'Brien's sidekick quit his Late Night gig in 2000, the headlines might as well have read ANDY RICHTER LOSES MIND. Richter, 35, seemed the definition of a lucky stiff. An actor-comic whose brief pre-Conan resume included doing stage productions of Brady Bunch scripts, he was now being paid to sit on a couch, scope out the guests' jowls for plastic-surgery scars and make wisecracks. "There were some days when I would joke to people, 'If I play my cards right, I won't have to say a word tonight,'" he says.
But Richter was a lot more than sofa ballast. Where other talk-show sidekicks once grinned and fed the boss straight lines, the acerbic Richter was an integral, almost equal partner, doing comedy bits and zany reporting segments on the road. Over seven years, he took that most emasculating of show-biz roles and gave it something like dignity. (Even if he once had to streak onto the Today show set in flesh-colored underwear as a prank for Late Night.) "Sometimes we'd have an older guest who wasn't too familiar with the show," remembers O'Brien, "and he'd point at Andy and ask, 'Who's the dummy?' And the audience would boo! [The guest] would be shocked: 'What's going on? I called Ed McMahon a dummy on Johnny Carson 20 years ago, and it got a laugh!'"
But seven years on the couch was enough for Richter. "I didn't want to resent the show," he says. "If I stayed longer, I would have become like a kid who didn't leave home when he should have. I'd start thinking, 'My parents suck,' when the truth is really, 'No, you should have gotten a job.'" He has one now, starring in the funniest new sitcom of the spring, Andy Richter Controls the Universe (Fox, Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. E.T.), which not only shows that Richter has not lost his mind but also invites you inside his head.
In Universe, created by producer Victor Fresco, a would-be short-story writer (named Andy Richter) churns out technical manuals for a corporate behemoth and vents his creativity by imagining alternative scenarios for his work and love lives. At first blush, it sounds like just one more high-concept gimmick in a TV season full of them (as on CBS's creepy new talking-infant comedy Baby Bob). The TV fantasy sequence has been poured on like red sauce at an Olive Garden in series from Ally McBeal to Six Feet Under. But Universe proves that there is no gimmick so overused that it won't work if you do it funny. Its surreal, Simpsonsesque gags pile twist upon twist, as when Andy tries to get a rival fired, then in an exaggerated attempt to win the audience's sympathy, imagines striding into work wearing a coat lined with adorable puppies. "Would a bad person encase themselves in puppies like this?" he muses.
What makes Universe funny and not just wacky is that it uses the qualities that endeared viewers to Richter's Late Night persona--the affable, moon-faced cynic--making the character the kind of sweet but snarky dreamer you would want in the next cubicle. The supporting cast is top-notch, and after so many glamorous workplace sitcoms, it's nice to see one capture the tedium and absurdity of office life. And Universe mostly skips the physical jokes that Hollywood piles on comics who are, shall we say, not the leading-man stereotype (remember that flesh-colored underwear). "I didn't want it to be Fatty Gets the Girl," Richter says.