He sits in his shadowy Manhattan office, gazing out the window into the fading afternoon sun. Slowly, the words come to him. ”You know when people sing you ‘Happy Birthday,’ how long that feels?” he muses. ”That’s what this is like: a month of having ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to you over and over — and you’re just standing there awkwardly, and you don’t know what to do with your hands.”
So speaks Andy Richter a handful of shows before D-Day: May 26. After seven seasons of postmidnight high jinks, the beefy sidekick of NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien is jumping off the couch to pursue his acting career. (Look for him as Richard Gere’s hunting buddy in the upcoming Robert Altman film Dr. T and the Women.) For those of us left behind, the after hours will seem a darker place. Brimming with man-childish charm, Richter, 33, has earned cult fandom encompassing frat dudes and celebs alike. ”His appeal is off the charts,” testifies frequent Late Night guest Janeane Garofalo. ”I can’t think of anyone sexier on television, besides possibly Debra Messing from Will & Grace.” Daily Show host Jon Stewart is no less fawning. ”In the future,” he declares, ”we will carve the Richter profile into the mountains of South Dakota.”
Gosh, we haven’t seen this much buzzing around a departing late-night figure since Johnny Carson bid farewell — or at least since The Chevy Chase Show was axed. So in honor of his final Late Night flight, here’s a celebration of the many sides of Andy Richter.
Andy as Victor of Circumstance
Raised in the small town of Yorkville, Ill., Richter was toiling in improv and theater when, one day in 1993, destiny dialed: ”[Ex-Late Night head writer] Robert Smigel called and said, ‘Hey, I’m working with this guy Conan. Wanna meet him and maybe be a writer on the show?’ When Conan started doing test interviews, Robert said, ‘Go sit out there with him.’ I said, ‘And do what?’ ‘Whatever. If you wanna join in, join in.”’
”He had that great face,” recalls O’Brien. ”From the start, it felt like ‘Conan and his pal, Andy.’ It’s like asking, why is somebody your best friend? They just are, and you know it pretty quickly.” Richter was sold too: ”The sidekick was always the straight guy, the announcer, and I thought, ‘I dunno if that’s me.’ But then I thought, ‘Who am I to turn down being on TV every night?”’
Andy as Media Whipping Boy
When Late Night debuted in 1993, it was met with the enthusiasm of a hepatitis outbreak. Ratings were weak. Reviews were worse: Richter was dubbed an ”idiot,” a ”superfluous appendage.” NBC suits were vexed by his subtle, offbeat humor. ”I was told by a high-ranking executive to, quote, ‘Get that guy off the couch,”’ says O’Brien.
Many would crack under such malicious microscopy, but not our Andy. ”He’s just not neurotic,” marvels Garofalo, ”which is strange in entertainment.” The mind-set paid off. Public opinion shifted, and NBC execs finally relented. ”They were reading that the show was popular on college campuses,” says O’Brien. ”The next thing you know, ‘Hey, that Andy — he’s funny!”’