With his new ''Andy Barker, P.I.,'' the ex-''Late Night'' star Andy Richter hopes his third try at a primetime series registers a hit

By Dan Snierson
Updated March 15, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

He grips the steering wheel of the Mini Cooper. A glare reflects off his sunglasses. And then Andy Richter tilts his head in your direction and confides: ”Our mission is…doughnuts.”

”I just turned 40, so I’ve been trying to eat better and stuff,” continues the man who anchored the couch on Late Night With Conan O’Brien for its first seven years. ”But there are still things in the world like doughnuts. There’s no real nutritive value to them. To have a doughnut for breakfast…you’d be better off eating nothing.” He shrugs. ”But then again, they are really good.”

That solves the mystery of today’s interview excursion. Yet Richter is actually sweet on a bigger case: tracking down a hit show. With two attempts at series stardom in his rearview, Richter returns to the tube in the NBC comedy Andy Barker, P.I. as an earnest, picket-fenced-in accountant who stumbles into a dangerous career in sleuthing. Prepare to meet the only detective ever to utter profanities like ”Cheese and crackers!” and to inform a bad guy that if he bought his hideout instead of renting it, he’d realize a better tax break. ”[This show] has as much in common with Matlock as Friends,” Richter says. ”What I really liked was it’s a comedy story and mystery story. Also, I’m a sucker for ‘What’s gonna happen?’ And in comedies, there’s not a lot of ‘What’s gonna happen?”’

Richter knows such intrigue and uncertainty. He left behind a cushy life as Late Night‘s post-ironic sidekick in 2000 to explore other Hollywood corners. In 2002, he unveiled Andy Richter Controls the Universe, a Fox comedy in which he starred as a technical-manual writer with a bizarro imagination. Though it lasted only 14 episodes, the quirky, clever, single-camera series impressed critics, groomed a cult following, and confirmed that Richter — a writer-performer from the Chicago improv scene — was more than talk-show set dressing. That goodwill was tested in 2004 with 22 episodes of the stilted family-com Quintuplets. ”I didn’t want to go do some other delicate, artistic flower that was probably gonna get crushed,” he says matter-of-factly of his decision to play dad on the formulaic Fox series. ”I wanted to get on a big ol’ Clydesdale and ride it to syndication. I gotta put brioche on the table. I got kids [William, 6, and Mercy, 1, with wife Sarah Thyre]. They eat gold.”

What better way than by breaking bread with an old pal? O’Brien would occasionally regale his former foil with ideas for crazy projects, such as Treatment Beard, a movie featuring a hillbilly whose facial hair begets Hollywood blockbuster pitches. But last year, he shared a legitimate proposition: a retro comedy series about an accountant who starts getting detective work when he moves into the vacated office of a PI. Even better, O’Brien had teamed with a mutual friend, former Late Night head writer Jonathan Groff, and sold the idea to NBC. Offered the chance to star in and help write the show, Richter signed on faster than Barnaby Jones serving up justice in an alley foot chase.

Six filmed episodes later, Richter seems creatively fulfilled and he’s enjoying collaborating with O’Brien again. ”My leaving the show was good for our friendship, because then our relationship wasn’t completely rotating around the show,” says Richter. ”Now that we have an excuse to work together, it’s more fun.” Especially in a new context. ”When I heard he was going to take over The Tonight Show, I did have a moment where I thought, ‘Holy s—, I really could’ve been Ed McMahon.’ Nothing wrong with Ed McMahon, it’s just not what I wanted to be.”

It’s not what O’Brien sees for Richter, either. ”Andy has that Newhart ability to be the center of madness circulating around him,” he praises. ”He’s like a good sweet-and-sour sauce. There’s a real sweetness to him, and then he’ll say the most devastating thing you’ve ever heard.”

Look for Richter to slather his comic condiments on celluloid, too: He cameos as a Mountie in this month’s skating comedy Blades of Glory, reprises his role as Mort the lemur in Madagascar 2, and is currently shooting the Will Ferrell basketball comedy Semi-Pro, in which he plays the ”team manager/bus driver/arena announcer/ankletaper.” Still, Barker remains his baby, and he hopes that a few viewers can yank themselves away from Grey’s Anatomy or CSI and invest in another quirky, clever, single-camera Richter special. ”There is sort of the feeling of ‘How many times at the plate are they going to give me?”’ he says. Deadpans O’Brien: ”He’s pretty much told me, ‘This is it,’ and then he’ll take his life. He’s rented the hotel room in Las Vegas, and I’m going to join him.”

Actually, Richter already has a plan B. ”If everything else goes to hell, maybe I’ll get one of those [foodie] shows,” he says. ”You travel around with four people and one video camera, you go to Vietnam and eat cobra hearts.” He shrugs. ”Kids would miss me, but Dad’s gotta make a living.”