[25 March 2009]
Andy Richter gets no respect. His three sitcoms were all given the typical Fox treatment for offbeat, well-liked (but not well-rated) shows. As such, none of them have survived longer than the length of a typical season. His first attempt, Andy Richter Controls the Universe (executive produced by Victor Fresco, now helming Better Off Ted), went through the usual rigmarole of being picked up, shown in little bursts, taken off the schedule for months at a time, and, eventually, cancelled. It’s apparent that, as Richter states, the title of the show “was always meant to be ironic.”
Now, even with its DVD release—five years after its last episode aired, enough time for praise and nostalgia to build up—the series still isn’t getting the respect that it deserves. Instead of showing the episodes in the order they were intended, for some reason the DVD preserves the order in which Fox decided to air them. This makes the second episode, titled “Second Episode”, appear fourth on the DVD menu. If you want to watch the series in the production order, they provide a handy guide—inside DVD label, under the DVDs themselves, as opposed to the back of the sleeve where the Fox order is presented. And, if you try to watch it in the intended order, be prepared for constant shuffling between all three discs.
Oh well—being a fan is never easy, right? At least the DVD managed to include all 19 episodes. And, after watching them, it’s worth slogging through the DVD set and all of its flaws because, despite the low regard Fox and now Paramount gave it, the show is subtly innovative and really, truly funny.
Debuting in 2002, Andy Richter Controls the Universe provides a seamless bridge between fellow workplace comedies NewsRadio (last episode: 1999) and The Office (premiered: 2005). Richter took a big step forward from NewsRadio by transitioning from a multi-camera setup to a single-camera one, but it doesn’t break the same ground that The Office did since it maintains a traditional sitcom feel, where gags come in the typical setup-punchline format.
The premise of the show—that we see the world through Andy’s mind, which is prone to fantasy sequences, do-overs, conversations with imaginary people, and extremely subjective narration—lets the show remain firmly rooted in reality while indulging in bouts of whimsy.
“At the time, this wasn’t happening much on television,” Fresco says on one of the two half-hour commentary tracks available on the DVD. (The rest of the cast weighs in during the other two extra features, titled “How Andy Richter Controlled the Universe” and the shorter “What if Andy Richter Controlled the Universe?”) “There were little things,” Fresco says, “like Ally McBeal had certain moments, but we took it a little bit further.”
These cutaways often provided some of the strongest jokes throughout the series, including one where Andy projects forward and, based on his previous luck in life, imagines his own death. (“Well, we’ve amputated your arms and legs, but we still can’t find the problem,” his doctor says.) This architecture works so well, it’s no wonder it was cribbed by Scrubs.
While there are unbelievable moments involving kangaroo fights, sequined in-office song-and-dance routines, and Andy squeezing coal into a diamond, the characters on the show are always seen as realistic. Nobody is a moustache-twirling villain. The closest thing Andy has to a rival is his very attractive coworker, Keith (James Patrick Stuart)—who also happens to be one of Andy’s best friends and is an all-around nice guy. Life is just easier for him because he’s handsome, and Andy is understandably bitter about that, but the show stops there and doesn’t fall into the trap of turning Keith into a cartoonish, womanizing jerk. In fact, they go out of their way to give him some insecurity about his looks. (He has small feet.)
Every character is given this holistic treatment. They may have one dominant trait: Jessica (Paget Brewster) is coldly professional, Byron (Jonathan Slavin) is an emotional mess, Wendy (Irene Molloy) is the ingénue, and so on. But the characters never veer into caricatures of themselves, and all of them—even the pretty ones—are allowed to be funny. Richter may be the title character, star, and lens through which we see everyone else, but he steps back enough to share the humor pretty much equally between all of the characters, and all of the actors rise to the challenge.
The conflict of the show, then, lies is exploring the one or two flaws present in otherwise likable people. The best example is an episode where Andy dates a smart, beautiful woman—and then later finds out that she’s anti-Semitic. (The show complicates things further by having her give a reasonable-sounding argument as to why her bigotry shouldn’t affect their relationship.) Andy spends the episode trying to justify staying with her. His thought process is represented by a fist-fight between his male anatomy and his brain.
In another episode, Andy and his friends have to sort out their feelings about someone they hated until they found out he has cancer. The result is a more murky, interesting awkwardness that still has edge, but isn’t the all-out, cringe-inducing pain of The Office. It’s a shame that the show wasn’t given as much time as NewsRadio had and The Office has, because—with all their humor, quirkiness, and social awkwardness—these DVDs can slide in right next to those on the shelf and hold their own.