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Andy Richter Jumps Into Life After 'Late Night'

Television * Sidekick to Conan O'Brien is leaving the offbeat show Friday.

May 24, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the beginning, he wasn't much more than a network note, a note that went something like, "Lose the sidekick." Back then, NBC seemed to hate nearly everything about "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," its fledging replacement at 12:30 a.m. for David Letterman, who was bolting for CBS after failing to succeed Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show."

"Late Night With Conan O'Brien" debuted Sept. 13, 1993, and in the early going, so much of the heat was focused on O'Brien ("Who was this guy?" the critics asked, incredulous, and NBC kept him on a kind of death notice, renewing him at monthlong intervals) that Andy Richter was considered too insignificant to get worked up about.

"Mostly they just seemed to say I was fat," Richter says now, in the typically dry way he talks about himself. "They were too busy spewing bile at the rest of the show."

He's no longer so incidental, but come Friday, Richter is leaving "Late Night" for real, ending a seven-year run on the show during which he established himself as a goofy, unassuming presence on the talk-show couch and a versatile comedic performer in various "Late Night" sketches. These included "The Year 2000," in which O'Brien and Richter, like bored adolescents creating fantasy games over a long summer, sat in a darkened studio, shining flashlights in their eyes and making predictions about the future.

While O'Brien seemed to be figuring out his talk-show host personality right there before our eyes, Richter appeared more sure of his offbeat persona, helping to build the show's popularity among college-aged viewers. "The funny thing is that people think you just . . . sit in the chair and throw in a jab every now and then," says "Late Night" producer Jeff Ross, assessing the fine art of being a talk-show sidekick. "It looks easier than it is, which is fine, because nobody needs to know how hard it is."

Ross says O'Brien will host "Late Night" alone, at least for the time being, and that new sidekicks will be tried out informally in the coming months. Richter announced last summer that he would be leaving the show, but "Late Night," while fielding tape from would-be successors and mulling plans, hasn't exactly been grooming a replacement, Ross says. Hired originally as a writer, Richter became O'Brien's sidekick after test shows confirmed comedic chemistry between the two. All in all, it was a dynamic that developed organically, and Ross doesn't want to force the process now that Richter is leaving. "It would be insulting to Andy to think that we could actually find somebody and sit them in the seat," Ross says.

But while noting that "three-quarters of the show is [O'Brien] talking to guests," Ross conceded that the show faces new questions with Richter's departure. "I'm the last one to minimize the effect of his leaving. There will be a lot of adjustments. The writers will have only one character to write for instead of two."

Interviewed last fall while he was in Los Angeles taping a week's worth of shows, O'Brien said he'd rather risk it alone than risk hitting false notes with a new sidekick. "What I'm a little reluctant to do is, if it happened naturally with Andy, is to then say, 'All right, Andy will leave on a Friday. On Tuesday, a sardonic, dry Nordic guy named William will be sitting there.' "

This coming Friday night, meanwhile, Richter, 33, will be sent off with a musical number, and he will engage in one more staring contest with O'Brien (a recurring bit). From there, it's on to fame and fortune in TV and film, or some facsimile thereof. A former performer in various Chicago improv companies, Richter played Mike Brady in the New York and Los Angeles productions of "The Real Live Brady Bunch," a staged spoof of the 1970s sitcom. He met his wife, actress Sarah Thyre, in the L.A. production.

"I'm a frustrating interview right now because I don't know what I'm doing," Richter says, though he will be seen as one of Richard Gere's hunting buddies in the upcoming Robert Altman comedy "Dr. T and the Women." Beyond that, he would like to push his profile past the "fat slob roles" he says he's offered on screen.

Like "Late Night" itself, Richter has a strong cult following while remaining unknown to most of the country. But who's to say that others will catch on, now that Richter lacks a comedy platform--to say nothing of the regular paycheck--that "Late Night" afforded him?

"I have moments where I'm a little nervous about it, but I still want to see what's out there," Richter says. For starters, he may have to explain to people what he was doing on TV these past seven years. Even many in the entertainment industry think he's just been an announcer all these years on "Late Night," Richter says, some guy standing in the wings, his arms clasped politely behind his back.

"Like I'm Gary Collins," he says.

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