Current comedy is dominated by talkers rather than listeners. For all the cultural cachet that improvisation has gained over the last couple decades, the comedy landscape is full of scene stealers: alphas like Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler who control the room with their bombastic charisma and wildfire energy.
Andy Richter is not such a figure. He is laid-back and low-key, happy to take the backseat while others shift into overdrive. Most famous as the sidekick of Conan O’Brien, Richter’s relaxed demeanor makes him a perfect complement to his boss’ tightly wound comedic zeal. No matter what his role, Richter always feels genuinely cheerful, completely comfortable, and intrinsically Midwestern.
Yet none of this means that Andy Richter is a softy. On the contrary, while he may be laconic on the talk show couch, his interjections are hilarious and frequently devastating: When Chelsea Handler suggested that his girth might allow him to float more easily, Richter shot back, “What, do you sink? It might be that cast-iron heart.” His Twitter feed is a potent blend of absurdist jokes and pointed jabs. And as a guest on shows like Comedy Bang! Bang! and Getting Doug With High he showcases his quick-witted improv acumen. Andy Richter is nobody’s fool.
This razor wit helps explain the string of sitcoms Richter landed after leaving Late Night in 2000; its subtlety might help explain his inability to find a sitcom foothold. Of the three network shows Richter starred in, Andy Barker, P.I. was the shortest running and least heralded, running six episodes with virtually no one watching. Yet it may be the series that best made use of Richter’s particular set of skills.
Like cult favorite Andy Richter Controls The Universe, which cast its lead as a daydreaming, Mitty-esque figure, and the overly broad Quintuplets, in which he’s a well-meaning but overwhelmed father, Andy Barker, P.I. uses Richter’s nice-guy persona as a comedic engine. Created by Conan O’Brien and Late Night head writer Jonathan Groff, Barker follows an accountant—with all the straight-edged personality traits that implies—who begins his own practice in a strip-mall office. When clients begin mistaking him for the office’s previous tenant, a private investigator, he reluctantly begins taking on their cases. The look and feel of the series was inspired by crime-solving dramas from the ’70s, like Hawaii Five-O and Kojak.
“What we didn’t like,” O’Brien told The New York Times, “was that old comedy idea of the bumbling idiot who, by stumbling and bumbling, solves the crime. We liked that this would be somebody who probably did well at his community college and has a lot of emotional intelligence and is decent, and that this all actually serves him well in this job most people think of as requiring someone to be a bastard in the film noir tradition.”
Andy Barker is no Inspector Clouseau, nor is he a Sam Spade. He’s sort of a Columbo, but more than anything, he’s an everyman: a little schlubby, a little naïve, a nice guy just trying to do his best. Richter excels at this Regular Joe character work, guiltily admitting that he watched Judging Amy without his wife (Clea Lewis) and deadpanning lines like, “Tax return? Things just got interesting.” His grounding serves him well as a fish-out-of-water in the hardboiled detective world, and as the straight man for a game ensemble of eccentrics.
Chief among these is Tony Hale, whose considerable comedic talent is on full display in the role of Simon, the owner of the video store below Barker’s office and his default partner in investigating. Simon shares the cluelessness and vulnerability of Hale’s most memorable characters, but he’s more caustic and confident than Buster Bluth or Gary from Veep. As a movie buff, he believes himself to be an expert at solving crimes.
This braggadocio leads to some of the funniest moments of the series, as he flirts hopelessly with Barker’s no-nonsense assistant (Nicole Randall Johnson) and makes a fool of himself in front of true private investigator Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell, channeling his rabidly masculine performance in Fargo). Rounding out the main cast is Marshall Manesh as Wally, the high-strung Afghani proprietor of a kebab restaurant that’s decked out in American flags and busts of presidents—“He went a little overboard with the patriotic stuff after 9/11,” Simon tells Andy.
Apart from its casting, the series’ greatest strength is in its plotting. “The through-line through all these shows [that inspired Andy Barker] is that they are all plot, plot, plot,” said Richter in that same New York Times profile. Each episode is a small mechanical marvel, chock-full of the sort of callbacks and reveals that comedy nerds love. The pilot, penned by O’Brien and Groff, is a structural tour de force, introducing the ensemble and main premise of the series, speeding through a decent mystery, and still managing to parody at least three iconic scenes from Chinatown along the way.
The show’s potential really snaps into place with episode two, “Fairway, My Lovely” (all the episode titles are homages to famous noir stories). It opens with Andy playing golf with a boorish and overweight client, Guy (Peter Allen Vogt). After he challenges Andy to a race to the green, he drops dead, ham sandwich still in hand. It seems like a clear heart attack (“He did mention a team of cardiologists,” Richter informs his widow), but as Andy investigates, he discovers multiple affairs and potential for motive. There’s a running gag that everyone except for Andy saw Guy as a sort of Adonis, a strange twist that prevents the story from slipping into lazy fat jokes. Each time someone reminisces about Guy’s sexuality, a perplexed Richter flashes back to him running on the golf course in slow motion, an image that becomes funnier with each repetition. The plot unfolds adroitly, with the requisite trail of clues and red herrings. While the solution might not be a shocker, it’s satisfying nonetheless and culminates in a high-speed chase in a golf cart.
In fact, of the six episodes, the only one where the mystery is somewhat murky is the season’s third episode, “Three Days Of The Chicken” which concerns corrupt chicken cartels selling tainted poultry to Wally and other vendors. Even after three viewings, it still leaves very little impression. Then again, it does feature Tony Hale in a fake moustache and Harve Presnell being terrorized by a hen, so it has its charms.
The clever setups and dense stories lead to a show that’s more dry than hysterical, which may explain its limited run. There are also legitimate questions about how this somewhat limiting premise could be sustained over additional seasons—for one thing, how were they ever going to top “The Lady Varnishes” for a title? Yet these same qualities make the half-dozen episodes that aired immensely re-watchable (they’re all available with a Hulu Plus subscription). Much like their star himself, they brim with crisp one-liners, gentle satire, and an encompassing sense of fun.
The leading-man phase of Andy Richter’s career may have come to an end, but he continues to enrich any project he’s a part of, from Conan to numerous TV guest roles to potential game-show-hosting duties. He’s far from done making us laugh. And while Andy Barker, P.I. may not have been a sensation, its assuredness and warmth makes it yet another proof of Richter’s status as a quiet comedy legend.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder.
Next time: Stephen Bowie looks on as Hal Holbrook takes off the Mark Twain mustache and takes on the political machine in The Senator.