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What's the Frequency, Andy?

As Matthew on NBC's 'NewsRadio,' Andy Dick dials up all the comic gifts at his very peculiar fingertips.

July 26, 1997|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are a lot of ways Andy Dick can make people laugh.

As Matthew, the perpetually befuddled cub reporter on NBC's "NewsRadio," Dick has scored big with an exceptionally funny mix of aching deadpans and hyperkinetic slapstick. As a guest regularly turning up with Conan O'Brien and David Letterman, and on "Politically Incorrect" and many other programs, Dick appears as a hilariously loose cannon--gleefully treading upon any number of social taboos and perhaps holding forth on the plight of owning up to his problematic surname.

And as a bright light on the alternative comedy scene, at local venues such as LunaPark's Un-Cabaret, Dick continues to fearlessly ignore the possibility of embarrassment as he wrings laughs from his distinctively tweaked tales of sex, love, work and personal discomfort.

Even for an audience of one, the laughs do not stop. Watching the personable, 31-year-old comic actor become increasingly flustered at the daunting selection of coffees at a West Hollywood cafe is nearly as side-splitting as anything he does on screen or stage. No matter the venue or showcase, there seems to be a common response to Dick--nervous titters give way to laughter so hard it hurts.

"I'm the kind of guy that you tend to just look at and laugh--at," the Charleston, S.C., born comic explains. "Yes, you're laughing at me, and I have no problem with that. I guess I'm odd-looking. I'm skinny. But I'm not only skinny--I'm oddly shaped. I have no shoulders, which of course is depressing. I'm a stick, and when I try to put on weight, I'm a stick with a pouch. Let's be frank--I'm a freakboy. I have a little bit of the odd look, so whether I'm sipping my coffee or spitting it out, somebody's laughing. And I enjoy that very much."

Dick's odd charms first became apparent to a wide audience when he co-starred on the lamentably short-lived Fox series "The Ben Stiller Show," working alongside Stiller, Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk. But the comic says his sensibility was forged early in life when, as the adopted son of a Navy officer and his wife, he spent much of his childhood moving from city to city.

"We lived in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and even had a really great year in Yugoslavia," Dick says. "But we were never that close. I wasn't a mama's boy or a daddy's boy--I was a strange, freakish little loner. And I was always the new kid in school. I learned pretty quickly that being the new kid got you a week of attention, but if you could make people laugh, the attention lasted until it was time to move again."

Given the obvious liabilities of his last name, the attention Dick received was not always welcome. "Sometimes I still get that feeling of being in a brand-new homeroom, and roll call is being taken, and I'm just petrified," Dick explains, his smile fading for a moment. "I was picked on and made fun of constantly. But it made me stronger. And funnier--because if I didn't make kids laugh, I was going to get punched."

Dick's most fortuitous move came when, at 18, he left home to live in Chicago. There, he developed some serious comedy chops, studying with improv-guru Del Close and working steadily at the famed Second City and the ImprovOlympics. He honed his skills in front of the camera by working on numerous commercials.

By the time Dick was 25, he had a blossoming career on the Chicago scene, often performing at one venue or another every night of the week. But he was supporting a wife and child with a series of less-than-inspirational day-jobs. "I was a food delivery guy, running into my agent's office with bags of other people's food--'Hi, just checking in.' I worked as a waiter at, ironically enough, a place called Dick's Last Resort. And I was a tour guide at the Water Tower--'Here's the slide show, there's the snack bar, I'll be sitting in the corner crying.' "

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Dick was not immediately cheered by a move to L.A. in 1991. An agent who had agreed to represent Dick dropped him just as the comic moved his family out, and some quick brushes with agents and managers of questionable ethics further soured him. "I was hanging by a thread," Dick remembers. "I thought this town was ugly and scary, and the people just weren't any fun. I was in a deep depression. And then the cavalry arrived."

The cavalry came in the form of Stiller, who had just gotten his deal with Fox and was coming to L.A. to do the show. The absurdist character work that Dick displayed over the 13 episodes of "The Ben Stiller Show" brought him to a new level of status around town. "At auditions it went from, 'Sign in and take a seat' to 'Omigod!--Thanks for coming! Don't bother to sign in. Do you want water? Evian? Crushed ice?' "

Did that recognition change the way he felt about Hollywood? "Yeah, I hated it more. I was thinking, 'You jerks. This is what you've been hiding? You're actually capable of being nice but you act like bastards? Yuck.' "

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