When Conan O’Brien takes over the Tonight Show June 1, Andy Richter will be joining him as his announcer and occasional comedy partner. For Richter obsessives (and there are several) the announcement is exciting and sad. Richter has rarely had the chance to be as funny as he was on Late Night in the nine years he’s been away, but when he’s been given a starring role in a decent vehicle, he’s proven to be a great comedic actor, able to spout all sorts of inspired lunacy while still retaining his nice-guy appeal. Probably the best example of Richter’s capability with the right material is Andy Richter Controls the Universe, a half-hour sitcom that ran for two partial seasons on FOX.
The show was canceled in 2003 — typical of the channel’s pattern of greenlighting inventive, promising programs, refusing to promote them, then dropping them before they can develop a following — but fortunately ARCTU was just released for the first time on DVD March 24, just in time for Blu-ray and streaming Netflix to render the medium obsolete.
In ARCTU, Richter plays the title character, an aspiring short-story author who writes technical manuals for a weapons manufacturer. It’s a shitty, dead-end job, but early in the first episode, Richter explains in voice-over that “This is a show about possibilities,” and Richter spends the majority of episodes fantasizing about what might have happened instead of concentrating on what’s actually going on. His frequent daydreaming tangents recall Scrubs and occasionally Family Guy, and they often fall just as flat as those shows’ most lame and idiotic moments. Richter’s writing aspirations allow for an unfortunate amount of meta-gags, most of which were stale three decades before the original airdate.
But the show’s pilot begins promisingly enough, with no laugh track and only the briefest introductions to the other characters: Jessica (Brewster), Richter’s ball-breaking boss and best friend; Byron (Slavin), the new illustrator Andy is forced to share his office with; Wendy (Molloy), the receptionist Andy has a hopeless crush on; Keith (Stuart), Andy’s attractive friend who’s recently begun nailing Wendy; and Mr. Pickering, the ghost of the company’s founder whom Andy frequently imagines offering unhelpful anachronistic advice (“In my day, if you wanted to sabotage a man, you’d liquor him up, stuff him in a duffel bag, and mail him to the Kaiser.”). The pilot avoids the mistake most first episodes make by never sacrificing momentum to explain and introduce every little element of its world, assuming viewers are intelligent enough to keep up.
This immediately bit the show in the ass, of course, as witnessed in the fourth episode, when low ratings apparently made network execs intervene and insist on what’s basically a new introduction to the characters, including a belabored explanation of how everything shown isn’t really happening and the guy from the 1800s is actually dead and a figure of Andy’s imagination. But minor annoyances aside, the show, mostly thanks to some smart writing and Richter’s infinite likeability, finds its direction quickly, and by the end of its six-episode first season, it looked to become one of the funniest, most intelligent network sitcoms at the time.
By the second season — 13 episodes, only eight of which originally aired — however, some semi-serious flaws are evident. Slavin’s nervous Byron is brilliant, but Molloy and Stuart are both sucky actors playing uninteresting characters. With a few exceptions, the show drags whenever they’re featured in the B storyline. Brewster, by contrast, is a great comedic actress, delivering gonzo one-liners and passive-aggressive insults with perfect timing, but her character is never really solidified, written instead to fit whatever the episode’s plot requires of her.
But the series really shows its potential in “Crazy in Rio,” the second-to-last episode the channel originally aired, partially thanks to O’Brien’s surprisingly well-acted guest appearance as Freddy Pickering, the company’s new CEO, who takes over after his mother dies. (“At least she died doing what she loved,” Freddy says. “Committing suicide.”) As the episode progresses, Freddy transforms from a rich eccentric to a dangerous psychotic, striking a balance between good-natured grinning and oddball edginess that the show would maintain for the rest of its brief run. Fortunately for fans, a similar sensibility returned to FOX (for three more seasons, anyway) a few months after ARCTU was canceled, when Arrested Development debuted. •