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Wednesday, April 8, 2009
  DVD Review: Andy Richter Controls the Universe

Andy Richter Controls the Universe was a short-lived sitcom from 2002-2003, Richter’s first major project since leaving his sidekick duties on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I’d never watched it when it was on, though I remember hearing that it was really smart and funny and never really got a chance to find its audience. So when I got the opportunity to review the DVD collection of the complete series from Paramount (which the show’s devoted cult of fans has been demanding for years), I leapt at it. After all, I’m a huge Arrested Development fan, so I’m sympathetic to an ostensibly brilliant sitcom that was cancelled too soon. (Though I must say, as much as I miss Arrested Development, we got three seasons of it, which is actually pretty awesome, and probably more of a “fair chance” than most networks would give such a decidedly odd show.) I’m happy to say that Andy Richter Controls the Universe is indeed a great little sitcom that, as the cliché goes, was too far ahead of its time.

The show follows a frustrated writer named Andy Richter who spends his days writing technical manuals for a weapons manufacturer. His core of friends also happens to be his circle of co-workers – his neurotic boss, Jessica, his impossibly-handsome best office buddy Keith, his nerdy cubicle-mate Byron, and sexy receptionist – and Andy’s secret crush – Wendy. The show’s title comes from its premise that, as a writer, Andy’s imagination is running full-tilt all the time, so the show constantly shoots off on bizarre tangents based on his fantasies (everything from simple things like having all his co-workers laugh like maniacs at his jokes to absurd stuff like imagining himself wearing a suit full of puppies to be more well-liked around the office). Richter makes for just about the most unreliable narrator ever, except he always comes clean, informing the viewer that, say, his boss didn’t ACTUALLY physically beat him for meddling in her relationship, but the reality wasn’t that far off. Basically, it’s an excuse for the show to veer off on wacky little five-second tangents every minute or two, à la Family Guy, except here, unlike in Family Guy, it works and is very funny. (In case it's unclear, I really do not like Family Guy.)

The other aspect of Andy Richter Controls the Universe that proved to be ahead of the curve is the removal of a laugh track (it’s also another way that it’s similar to Arrested Development). As with AD, not only does this make it seem less phony and staged, but it also allows for rapid-fire comic dialogue. Like Arrested Development and The Simpsons, the absence of a laugh track allows the jokes to come fast and furious without having to pause for canned laughter. It’s far more common now to have sitcoms sans laugh tracks, but when this show debuted, it was a crazy concept.

But all the high-concept gimmickry in the world doesn’t mean anything to a show like this if the laughs aren’t there. Luckily, Andy Richter Controls the Universe is freaking hilarious. For me, top-shelf American TV comedy includes shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Arrested Development and 30 Rock, to name a few, and at the risk of being hyperbolic, this show is almost up there in that rarified company. If the Andy Richter Controls the Universe had gotten another few seasons to continue to develop its characters and really hit its groove, it easily could have been a hall of fame contender. But instead we only have 19 episodes – 14 were broadcast, and five more that never aired on network TV – of something approaching sitcom brilliance. There’s some great comedy writing on display here; not for nothing was the show nominated for an Emmy.

Of course, no show could be this funny without a solid cast, and Andy Richter Controls the Universe has one in spades. At first Keith (James Patrick Stuart) seems like the stereotypical “handsome guy” – superficial, a bit dim, and oblivious to the world around him – but Stuart makes him more than that. He’s actually a good friend to Andy and while he’s not necessarily the smartest guy on the show, he’s also not the typical sitcom dumb-guy, and the writers have a lot of fun playing with that archetype. But for me, Paget Brewster’s Jessica was the real highlight of the show. I’ve seen Brewster in movies and stuff before (she’s quite good in a weird, funny little low-budget superhero spoof from 2000 called The Specials; it's very clever, and pre-dates the current superhero-movie boom, which makes it even odder), and she’s both incredibly funny and ridiculously hot. After watching 19 episodes of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, I am THIS close to starting a creepy web-shrine to her. Such a lethal combination of hotness and genuine talent is pretty rare, and how she’s not totally superfamous by now is a total mystery to me (though she’s a regular on Criminal Minds, which, while great for her, is a serious loss to the comedy world). If there was justice in the world she’d be Tina Fey levels of famous. And I would control the universe, with my beautiful and terrible wife Paget Brewster at my side. Moo hoo ha ha.



The three-disc DVD set for Andy Richter Controls the Universe has a decent assortment of extras, including commentary from Richter and show creator/executive producer Victor Fresco on two early episodes. Both are funny and have interesting stories, and years between making the show and recording the track allows them some decent perspective.

The main extra is a 25-minute retrospective featurette on the show called ‘How Andy Richter Controlled the Universe,’ featuring interviews from all the cast members and Fresco. It’s quite interesting, as the show has developed a fairly devoted cult audience through reruns on U.S. cable television (Irene Molloy, who plays Wendy, says she receives emails from fans of the show regularly to this day, and is often recognized for this show, which was on for less than a year). The fact that everyone being interviewed is funny elevates There’s also a brief bit called ‘What if Andy Richter Controlled the Universe?’ in which Richter explains what would be different if he actually controlled the universe, and the other cast members give their takes on Andy’s World, as well as what they’d do if they controlled the universe. It’s really a little bit of nothing, but again, everyone’s very funny, and at less than five minutes in length, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Overall this is a very solid DVD set for an excellent show. If you’re a fan of Arrested Development, I highly recommend Andy Richter Controls the Universe.

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