The Tonight Show controversy of late has audiences rallying around Conan O’Brien, that lanky redheaded purveyor of weirdness who spent years on the Late Show celebrating the absurd: the masturbating bear, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, “Driving the Desk,” staring contests and “In the Year 2000” were among the segments that lasted far longer and were way more memorable that even Conan himself would have predicted. His self-deprecating monologues and silly stunts with guests (like cutting Dave Foley’s hair) set him apart from the lame grandfatherly vibe of Jay Leno and Letterman’s biting sarcasm. Late Night with Conan O’Brien became one of my favorite shows in probably about 1997, when I was old enough to stay up that late and probably still not quite old enough to get all the jokes. I stopped watching it much in 2000, when the show lost some of its spark. The reason for this? The departure of Andy Richter.
A friend of SNL head writer and Conan producer (and voice of Triumph) Robert Smigel, Richter was originally hired as a writer for Late Night, but just before the show aired was brought on as an Ed McMahon-style sidekick. And the rest is history. Salon’s Heather Havrilesky wrote yesterday on Salon about how Conan has never been afraid to be weird, to trust that American audiences were not simply looking for a retread of Johnny Carson’s gentle schtick. But a lot of the time on Late Night, Conan played straight man to his growing cadre of weirdo sidekicks: first Andy, then Max, then Joel, the psychotic announcer. Andy Richter’s late night persona involved decidedly more than just supplying a “human laugh track,” a la McMahon. He wasn’t the best friend, guy-next-door kind of sidekick but rather an awkward, hapless eccentric who often became of the focus of a sketch’s humor (as in the classic staring contests).
Andy’s chubby, baby-faced appearance and Midwestern background made him the perfect Mutt and Jeff-style opposite to Conan’s gawky New Englander. During Conan and Andy’s nightly bull sessions, a conversation about Andy’s weekend, delivered with aw, shucks good humor, would typically spin into off-color stories that hinted at an odd and depraved lifestyle. Unlike Max Weinberg, who we want to love but who weirds us out, Andy’s weirdness is what makes him a lovable comedian and sidekick. It also makes him a gamble for a talk show. This is the joke that Andy’s best sketches are often built around: he’s not the kind of guy most people are dying to see on television. His persona makes Conan O’Brien look comparably suave and camera-ready.
In one of my favorite Late Night sketches ever (which doesn’t seem to be available online), Andy trains to become a weatherman, only to find that he lacks all the appropriate skills (charisma, self-confidence, an understanding of how television works) and even wears a bright blue suit that causes him to blend into the weather map. In another early segment, “Runaway with Andy” (a travel show spoof narrated by Robin Leach), he travels to Coney Island with Abe Vigoda, where they taunt guard dogs and wander aimlessly, unhappily, past rows of boarded up amusements. And who could forget his fake talk show, “Andi,” which fails to produce proper guests or any conflict? Andy Richter, antihero.
I don’t know what Andy plans to do now (from his statement though, I’d guess he’s pretty pissed), but I hope he gets another chance to work his queasy-awkward magic on television audiences. It seems his best foray into television, the short-lived Andy Richter Controls the Universe (great vid of highlights here), has developed enough of a cult following to warrant a DVD release. However, he’s had enough failed sitcoms that this slap in the face from NBC might be his last straw. I hope not!
The world of late night is better with Andy Richter in it.
And I leave you with some great links:
Andy’s POV (terrible quality, but classic Andy)
Andy performing Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” (also bad quality recording)
The Circle Line Show (Classic Late Night)