For his sake, it’s really good news that Andy Richter will be reuniting with former Late Night cohort Conan O’Brien when Conan takes the Tonight Show chair in June. The poor guy never could catch a break in the sitcom world after leaving Late Night in 2000, with all three of his headlining shows canceled without ever getting past the second season.
By far the best of those three shows was Andy Richter Controls the Universe, a consistently sharp and uproarious single-camera sitcom that reveled in subverting the conventions of the genre. It aired as a mid-season replacement on FOX for two seasons in 2002-2003 before it was unceremoniously given the hatchet.
Like many an unfortunate FOX program before and since, the network didn’t really know what to do with Andy Richter Controls the Universe, switching its timeslot and air day around willy-nilly, thoroughly wrecking any chance of a strong enough audience base developing. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure if it would have caught on with anything more than a devoted cult audience anyway – the rapid barrage of silliness and non sequiturs might have been more than the average sitcom consumer could handle.
On the show, Richter plays a version of himself who works for a nondescript Fortune 500 company writing instruction manuals for everything from deep fryers to heat-seeking missiles. He would much rather write something like a novel, and is either too creative or too weird to be satisfied with his corporate existence, so Andy is constantly imagining alternate versions of events. Everything is presented to the viewer as fact until all of a sudden, the shot freezes, we hear a rewind sound and Andy sheepishly explains that’s not what really happened.
The gimmick works because Andy’s daydreams are a lot stranger than most of ours probably are. Sure, he occasionally thinks about what it would be like to get with the hot girl at reception or punch the guy who’s really annoying, but he mainly thinks about stuff like if he had wheels for feet or what it would be like to wear a coat made of puppies. Absurdity is in no short supply on Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and it’s the show’s undying commitment to being ridiculous, whether in Andy’s daydream sequences or not, that sets it apart from most sitcoms.
Also in the mix are a colorful cast of characters that are Andy’s coworkers and friends. Wendy (Irene Molloy) is the receptionist that Andy begins the series pining for, but that plot element quickly drops off when Andy’s best friend, suave Keith (James Patrick Stuart), gets her instead. Byron (Jonathan Slavin) is Andy’s awkward officemate and Jessica (Paget Brewster) is his boss who can never catch a romantic break. The five constantly hang out, at work and outside of it, and the chemistry between all of these actors is strong.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe is an absolute riot from beginning to end. Its production values make it look like any one of a number of typical sitcoms from the last decade, but it’s cutting-edge stuff topically, if not visually. The season two episode “Crazy in Rio” that features Conan as a guest star is one of the most hilarious episodes of television ever.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe – The Complete Series contains all 14 episodes of the broadcast run, plus five more not shown on network television, on three discs. Two episodes feature a commentary track by Richter and series creator Victor Fresco. Two featurettes, "How Andy Richter Controlled the Universe" and "What if Andy Richter Controlled the Universe?", take a fond look back at the show and its inception, and feature new interviews from all five members of the principal cast.Powered by Sidelines