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Andy Richter: The TV Squad Interview

by Nick Zaino, posted Nov 23rd 2009 11:08AM
Andy Barker P.I. If you never managed to catch Andy Barker, P.I. when it originally aired two years ago, try not to beat yourself up. Though the show had an impressive cast, led by Andy Richter as a CPA-turned-private-investigator, and including Harve Presnell, Tony Hale, Marshall Manesh, and Clea Lewis. It was also created by Conan O'Brien and Jonathan Groff. But it only lasted six episodes, and didn't seem to get much push from NBC. Watching it on the newly released DVD, Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series, it's hard not to feel the show could have had legs if given the chance.

All's well that ends well, though, and Richter is happier than ever, paired again with Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show, getting to do what he calls a "silly little comedy show" without dealing with the backwards world of the sitcom. I spoke with Richter earlier this week about Barker and being back with Conan.

Do you think Andy Barker, P.I. got a fair shake when it was first out?

Oh, certainly not. Absolutely not. It was sort of just, you know, shoved on TV and meant to go away.

Do you think from the start it was meant to...

Yeah, kinda. Kinda. You know, I say this as kind of neutrally as possible. I think it's just a statement of fact. It's not really sour grapes. I mean, granted, there's just a skosh of sour grapes to all of this, but there just was really not much promotion. It was a network that already had some critically-acclaimed comedies that not many people were watching and they probably didn't need another one.

They apparently decided at some point that, 'This show is not going to be a big breakout, runaway hit so let's just kind of cut our losses and put it on, and if magic happens, then great, we'll get behind it. But we're not going to get behind it before. We're not going to really get behind it before and push. We're going to put it on.' It's basically like a friend of mine once referred to it - they shove you out on an ice float and push you out into the water and go, 'All right, now, thrive!'

And like I say, it's not sour grapes. I don't know that, they might know something I don't just about the way people watch television. I'd be terrible at picking television shows.

Andy Richter Andy Barker The Tonight ShowDid you go back and watch the show at all?

A little bit. A little bit. I don't watch a lot of stuff of my old stuff. It doesn't feel particularly pleasurable. And that's more just garden variety self-loathing.

Was there anything about this series that you were particularly proud of or that you particularly enjoyed?

Pretty much everything about it. It's a great, refillable structure that could have gone on for many, many years, which you're always trying to find. Even knowing that the actual concept of a show, the shell of a show, or the gimmick of a show, is not the whole thing. The main thing is the execution.

Because you can have two entirely different shows about, say, a hospital in outer space. One could be great and one could be awful, just depending on the execution. But this show, in it's concept, just kind of the hybrid of a detective sitcom kind of thing, we didn't set the world on fire but it certainly was unique.

And it certainly had a great structure for writing jokes in, for filling up with jokes, week after week. And on top of that, in the incredibly risky business of casting a comedy, they did an amazing job of finding - in each role of the show, they did as good as they possibly could, or as well as they possibly could, finding somebody great to be in that role, to be a great caring, generous performer, and to make the characters come alive. And then it was also filled with a lot of really funny, clever jokes. Top to bottom, I really though tit was a great show, and there's six of them, and you can get them on DVD now.

Do you feel like you're settled in on The Tonight Show now? Do you feel like you've broken in the show and feel comfortable?

Somewhat. Not really. It does take a while. It feels comfortable, but I do have to remind myself that it's only been since June. It is fairly new. But it's also, it's so strange, and there's such upheaval, especially with the network being sold or not sold or who knows. It's a little bit hard to just feel like, "Here we are on The Tonight Show."

It does feel like we're living in the midst of a low-level earthquake that could increase at any time. But we just keep making shows and just keep trying to do them funny. That's, I think, always been Conan's strength is to keep his eye on the ball, as it were.

Does it feel at all like Late Night, when you first started with Conan years ago?

Only slightly, in that, we know what we're doing now and we certainly didn't then. So it's a lot easier. There's a structure in place. There were trained professionals around us before, but they didn't know what the show was. Now everybody kind of has a good idea what the show was and what their job is. It's a fairly well-oiled machine. It still has weird creaks and wheezes, but it's still a machine.

Do you pay attention to the ratings?

No, not really. I mean, I hear about them kind of incidentally or I overhear people talking about them, but I don't really focus on them. It doesn't do me any good. There's nothing I can do about it.

Yeah, it seems as though if somebody came back and told you that you were winning 18-34, but not doing well with Andy Richter and Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show34-65 or whatever, you couldn't start throwing more Matlock references in or something.

That's the other thing. Anytime you try and let the cart lead the horse, you're asking for trouble.

Is there a sort of friendly rivalry with Letterman, do you think? Or is that not something you think about?

I don't know that anybody has a lot of contact with anybody from his show. He is and always will be a big influence of mine and I think a big influence of Conan's, but he is now the competition. I think it's a collegial kind of relationship between the two shows. But there's direct competition, so it's not exactly chummy.

How about the relationship with Leno? I know that's probably a strange subject to talk about, since it's the same network.

It's pretty good. He's had his struggles, and he's kind of in the midst of some great television experiment. I don't know what's going on behind the scenes, I don't know who's running things. But we all certainly have a vested interest in his success, considering he's handing an audience off to us, indirectly.

There are also all of these stories that come up about how he said he'd take back the Tonight Show if they asked him to.

That was weird. That was a weird answer. Because nobody actually asked him if it was offered, the question was just sort of like, would you like to be back on? And he was the one who went on to say, "If they asked me, would I take it?" That's certainly not the classy answer to that question. The classy answer is, "Oh, well that's a silly question to ask because somebody already has that job." That's what you say. If you're classy.

Do you think people make too much of Leno taking over the ten o'clock slot and taking guests and sabotaging The Tonight Show?

Oh, number one, it's not an issue of sabotaging The Tonight Show, but it certainly is a big deal that they've made this major experiment, and it's a bold move. It's got a lot riding on it. But I don't think it's in any way sabotaging us or sabotaging anything. It's an experiment that they were trying and I think it remains to be seen whether or not it will work.

What made you come back to work with Conan for The Tonight Show?

Conan asked me. He asked me and it sounded like an exciting proposition. And I found myself, especially when the end of the Late Night show started to creep up on me, it felt really weird, and I started to kind of, with them all coming here, it was fun to be asked back to the party.

And quite frankly, everything aligned pretty nicely because I was getting really tired of trying to put comedy on television by myself. Because it's a really hard time to get any comedy on television and many networks seem to have just admitted defeat, and admit that they don't know how to do comedy anymore. So I was happy to have a place to come where I am respected and respect other people and have fun and get to just make comedy and put it on TV and go home and come back the next day and do the same thing again.

Would you go back into a sitcom if you could, or would you want to stay with The Tonight Show?

Not now. Not now. I mean, I've tried that and done that, and it's not much fun. This is a lot more fun. Honestly. It's not fun. Depending on how much control you have over the show, a lot of times, the shows are really dumb, and it's not very rewarding material, and you get bored easily. And you never feel any sense of security or anything.

The whole idea I think networks think is to sort of keep people on their toes by making them think they could get canceled at any time. I've never really found that to be an effective motivator for creative, funny types. But that's the way it's done. I am very happy to be here with all of my writer nerds, and my big, red-haired writer nerd, and do a silly little comedy show five days a week. It's great.

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I loved Andy Barker PI. And I agree with Richter: there were so many crazy possibilities and fun directions that the series could have headed had it picked up viewership.

I enjoy Bored To Death (and started watching it due to its similarity in concept -- the "everyman who becomes a detective"), but so far I don't like it as much as Andy Barker.

November 24 2009 at 12:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Andy Barker, PI was the victim of bad timing and being on a struggling network. Right now, niche comedies are all the rage (particularly on cable). Andy Barker, PI was just a little bit ahead of the curve.

November 23 2009 at 1:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In a way, Andy barker P.I. was bit of a precursor to Bored to Death. Obviously less, less, LESS hip than what you can do on HBO, but the setup is pretty similar.

Andy putting the smackdown on Leno. I'd rate that a 5.5 on the Richter Scale!!!!

November 23 2009 at 12:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love The Andy, just sit on the couch, we want you over there.

November 23 2009 at 12:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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