"I like cuteness in my babies and puppies, but not in my comedy,” said the actor and comedian Andy Richter. It was less than a week before the March 15 premiere of his new show, Andy Barker, P.I., on NBC, and the 40-year-old Mr. Richter was reflecting on the current state of situation comedy. “There’s a whole school of comedy that’s like, the whole punch line is there’s no punch line. The whole joke is that there is no joke. And I just think, Well, fuck you, too!” he said. “Then there’s the notion of doing some formulaic piece of shit just ’cause, Well, this is what people want, so I’ll give it to them. I’d rather take the pipe than do that.”
“But I’m not some sort of capital-A artist who looks down his nose at stuff,” Mr. Richter continued. “I like commercial things. There’s plenty of popular stuff that I like—like I don’t miss an episode of American Idol. I’ve really been enjoying Heroes. I think it’s possible for things to be really popular and really good.”
The premise of Andy Barker, P.I. revolves around Mr. Richter as Andy Barker, a mild-mannered accountant who reluctantly becomes a private detective due to a mysterious blonde mistaking him for his office’s previous tenant, retired investigator Lew Staziak (played by Harve Presnell, of Fargo fame). The show is shot in a single-camera format and is blessedly laugh-track-free, taking it out of standard sitcom fare and into the more interesting and fertile ground tilled earlier by Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office and Arrested Development. (In fact, Tony Hale—Buster on Arrested Development—pops up as the co-star on Andy Barker, P.I., playing a guy who owns the nearby video store and takes it upon himself to play Watson to Andy’s Sherlock Holmes … sort of.) Of course, there’s a lot more to it—plenty of high jinks inevitably ensue—but we’re guessing that audiences probably won’t need a lot of explanation as to why a talking Sandra Bullock doll from Miss Congeniality becomes a major plot point, as it does in the pilot episode. Or how Mr. Richter could find himself simultaneously manning a car through a medium-speed chase while advising a C.P.A. client how best to distribute his money.
Maybe it’s the Midwesterner in him—he was born in Michigan and raised in Illinois—but there’s just something inherently funny that comes from the juxtaposition of Mr. Richter’s pleasantly doughy features and his deadpan delivery. He’s the perfect straight man: “Then they moved into chicken,” says the retired P.I., Lew Staziak, in the third episode, which somehow revolves around the crooked poultry business. “That’s where the real money is.” “More than drugs?” asks a perfectly guileless, wide-eyed Mr. Richter. “Think about it,” Staziak says seriously. “You can’t turn heroin into a nugget. Everybody eats chicken … some, like me, for revenge.”
This show marks Mr. Richter’s third attempt to crack into network glory since he left the cushy job of sidekick on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2000. There was the beloved-but-short-lived Andy Richter Controls the Universe in 2002 on Fox, followed by the similarly received Quintuplets in 2004. Andy Richter was becoming the guy that everyone wanted to see on TV, and yet who never seemed to find the right elements to take off. “It’s frustrating, because I hear these things … like I was listening to the Howard Stern show, and they were saying things like, ‘How many chances is that guy going to get?’” Mr. Richter said. “It’s like an attitude of ‘Well, come on—that guy’s had a million chances.’ Like somehow the only reason I haven’t had a show that’s been on the air for five or six years is because of my weak will.”
Andy Barker, P.I. was created and is executive-produced by Conan O’Brien (who also co-wrote the pilot episode). “He’s been very involved, in that he’s very particular about the way I have to wear my hair,” said Mr. Richter, who said that he and Mr. O’Brien have remained close since his departure from Late Night. “I was a little sad when I left [the show], but I was excited to do something else—it had been seven years. If this show works out and gets to stay on the air, and I get to do it with Conan and Jonathan Groff [the co-creator, a producer and former head writer of Late Night] and Jeff Ross, who’s the [executive] producer of the Conan show, it would be perfect. Because it wasn’t like working with those guys was the problem—I just wanted to do something else and stretch myself a little bit. I’d be so happy, and it would be so perfect, if it works out that way … it would sort of satisfy everything.”
Mr. Richter lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the actress and writer Sarah Thyre, and their two children, 6-year-old William and 18-month-old Mercy (“Just in case Puritanism comes back, we’ll be ready with a real Pilgrim name,” Mr. Richter said). “I very much miss New York,” he said. “I kind of think of myself as being on an extended business trip that happens to involve owning a house and raising children.”
While he waits to learn Andy Barker P.I.’s fate, Mr. Richter is doing a feature film starring Will Farrell and Woody Harrelson, due out next year and entitled Semi-Pro, which is about a fictional 70’s-era A.B.A. basketball team about to be merged into the N.B.A. “There are a lot big afros—both Caucasian and black—big high socks, blue basketballs and lots of miserable polyester clothing that we’re all bitching about,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy how much fun it is, because it has about eight or nine of my really close friends working on it, including the director [Kent Alterman], an old friend of mine. There are lots of times where the movie gets in the way of us fucking around. And there have been a number of blown takes where they’ve had to yell ‘action’ four times because we were so busy fucking around we didn’t even notice. Like, Oh we’re shooting? Shit, sorry!”
Andy Barker, P.I. will air in the spot currently filled by 30 Rock and is up against such juggernauts as Grey’s Anatomy and CSI (“Why would they watch those? Garbage!” joked Mr. Richter). There have been six episodes shot altogether, with the possibility for an extended life come next season. “The hope is that they’ll order 6,000 more episodes and I’ll never have to work again except on this show,” Mr. Richter said with a fatalistic sigh. “All I can do is be in it and try to be good in it. Whether or not a show is good, or whether or not I’m good in it—that’s like No. 7 and 12, respectively, on the list of what really matters to the longevity of a show.
“I’m kind of energized by the challenge,” said Mr. Richter. “To try to make a show that I can be proud of, that’s to my taste, and that has a high standard that will satisfy a wide audience—it’s a high target to aim for.”