New York — Who is Andy Richter?
This seems like a simple question, especially for longtime fans of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," where Richter made his name as an easygoing yet waggish sidekick.
But now he's the leading man in his own prime-time comedy, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," which introduces new facets of Andy's personality.
Like Conan's Andy, this Andy isn't out to rule the world (he seems fine with his job as a technical writer in a big office tower). But he does fantasize about controlling the universe - at least, his little corner of it.
Accordingly, the show hasn't pegged its hero as a clownish wannabe. Sometimes he wins. Sometimes his dreams come true.
From time to time, he even succeeds with a woman! "I didn't want this to turn into a 'Cathy' comic," says Richter. "'Poor me, I can't get a date' isn't funny."
Granted, when a script calls for romance, "it makes me very uncomfortable," admits Richter, who in real life is married and the father of a 2-year-old boy. "You have to make out and stuff with a stranger.
"But if my character never got lucky with the girls, viewers would start to wonder. In real life, most people get lucky now and then."
So the new, well-rounded Andy is in the service of a goofy brand of authenticity, a twisted realism that helps make "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" the most refreshing, engaging TV comedy in years.
Richter, 35, allows that he's proud of his show, especially in comparison to a lot of other comedies on television.
"Of course, that's like saying, 'Wow! My gorilla can beat up your canary,"' he adds, typically self-effacing. "It's not that big a deal."
It is a big deal. His show is as sly as "Seinfeld" yet congenial as "Andy Griffith." He packs more laughs in an episode's two-minute teaser than you find in a night of Must-See TV. Richter has come up with an Andy-dote to sitcom fatigue. That's very big.
"Andy Richter Controls the Universe" is shrewdly plotted, then overlaid with Andy's play-by-play, such as, "Here I was, facing a problem as old as civilization itself: How to catch a drunk cat in the ceiling so I can go to France."
It's replete with wisdom. How can the races get along? One character tells Andy, "You ignore as well as celebrate what makes each person exactly the same and completely different from everyone else."
The show comes equipped with an escape valve to release pent-up silliness: the fantasy blackouts where Andy's control-the-universe musings suddenly manifest themselves.
And it's never filmed with a studio audience. "I didn't want to have to take unnatural pauses in the action for laugh breaks," Richter explains.