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Conan Cohort Andy Richter Reflects on the Ups and Downs of TV Comedy

Best known as Conan O’Brien’s affable talk-show sidekick, absorbing good-natured barbs from the host and tossing off a few of his own, Andy Richter once vacated his spot on the Late Night couch to try his hand as a star going solo. The result was a pair of short-lived sitcoms, FOX’s Andy Richter Controls the Universe and NBC’s Andy Barker, P.I.

Ratings defeated him, but he has no regrets. At 43, he says his days of mining the major networks for prime-time gold are over. This weekend, as part of San Francisco Sketchfest’s Summer Nights program, he will pay tribute to O’Brien, his once and future ginger-haired cohort, at the Herbst Theatre – and that suits him just fine.

“I would have loved for those shows to work,” he says. “Who doesn’t want to be successful? But I grew frustrated with the process of trying to get comedy on network TV. When I first left Conan, I was 10 years younger than I am now, and I wanted to survive on my own. I managed to put some quality products in the marketplace, but it didn’t last.

“When Conan approached me later to work on The Tonight Show – to make great television every day and not have to answer to anybody but my friend – it was easy to say yes. Was I going to do it for a little while, then take another crack at a sitcom? Heck no! I want to make a living. And it was The Tonight Show. It was supposed to last forever.”

Richter’s genial disposition masks any lingering bitterness he might harbor toward NBC, whose acrimonious split with O’Brien turned into all-too-public divorce in January. Since then, Richter has been touring the country, rock star-style, with his longtime friend, poking fun at the network and reviving the show’s best-known bits, including the popular Walker, Texas Ranger lever.

“I’d never done anything like it,” says Richter, who once starred as patriarch Mike Brady in a largely New York-based production of The Real Live Brady Bunch. “After the first week, we had to admit that we couldn’t party like we used to – we’re all in our 40s and 50s – so it was good that the tour had a relatively short lifespan. Besides, I’d like to think that Walker has limitless comedic potential, but it doesn’t.”

These days, Richter is anticipating O’Brien’s return to television, on TBS – not FOX, as was long rumored – in November. The onetime prom king of Yorkville High School in Illinois will happily reprise his role as announcer and sidekick. Though he’s unsure whether O’Brien plans to tweak the conventional talk-show format for his basic-cable debut, he looks forward to doing again what he knows the two do so well.

“There were too many problems with FOX, because they only provide their affiliates with two hours of programming per day,” he says. “After the 10 o’clock news, they might air The Simpsons or Everybody Loves Raymond, but it’s their choice – they have the power. If we’d taken that deal, we might have been on in half the country, and that doesn’t work.

“So much of the way television works these days is antiquated, based on a ’50s model, from the concept of the ‘Big Three’ networks to the Nielsen ratings. Jon Stewart likes to joke about being on cable, but in a few years that’s not going to be funny. That’s the direction TV is moving. And the beauty of the TBS deal is that Conan owns the show. That’s why I trust that we’re going to have the freedom to do a great, funny talk show.”

Is Richter concerned that a slow start might doom this latest venture to the same surprising fate that befell O’Brien’s Tonight Show?
“TBS seems very dedicated to this as a long-term commitment,” he says. “And we know how to put on a show, so I’m not worried about that. In the meantime, I’ll be going to San Francisco, the most beautiful of all cities, to be funny with Conan on stage. What better excuse for a visit?

“I’m not sure what my role will be. I’ll probably be adjusting microphones and refilling water glasses. And I’m happy to do it. [Comedian] Patton Oswalt will be asking the questions. It’ll be like an evening with James Lipton, with less beard dye.”