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Andy Richter segues from sidekick to sitcom

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Andy Richter is officially in charge in his new Fox sitcom "Andy Richter Controls the Universe."

After chatting with Conan O'Brien's former sideman, the odd thought occurs: That might not be such a bad management plan.

Richter comes across as amiable, articulate, and modest without being saccharine. He's a proud dad eager to provide for his 15-month-old son. He eats lunch off a plastic tray in a local deli without complaint.

All this, and he's bringing a genuinely fresh and clever show to television.

"I hope that people like it," Richter said. "It is a nice thing to make people laugh. There's a kind of beauty to it."

The humor in "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" comes the honest way, from snappy writing and sharp acting. (The laughs come directly from viewers: This filmed comedy, mercifully, has no laugh track.)

Richter's character makes a living at the dry task of writing technical manuals. He lives, however, by releasing his pent-up imagination in bursts of fantasy.

"This is a show about possibilities. The endless possibilities that life serves up to us every day," Richter, serving as the show's observer-narrator, tells us in the opening moments of the first episode.

That majestic sentiment is followed by an alarm clock sounding off and a series of ghoulish, goofy and sexy potential openings to his day -- all of which are not going to happen to the likes of hapless Andy.

What he encounters is a lack of interest from the pretty office colleague he covets (Irene Molloy), the loss of half his office to a nerdy new worker (Jonathan Slavin) and no respect in general.

Richter is built for comedy, with the snub-nosed, mischievous mug and husky build of an overgrown kid. Although he's the star, the show smartly allows him to play a dour everyman, one whose passive-aggressiveness is ballast to the wackier folks surrounding him.

Consider him a Bob Newhart for the 21st century, less likely to be satisfied with his life and more likely to serve up humor with a twist of malice.

Besides Slavin and Molloy, Andy's office troupe includes Paget Brewster as his supervisor-pal and James Patrick Stewart as a co-worker who's much too handsome for Andy's good.

The show, which debuts 8:30 p.m. EST Tuesday, marks Richter's full-time return to television since his departure from NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in 2000.

He hasn't been idle, filling his time with supporting roles in movies including "Scary Movie 2" and "Dr. T & the Women." Upcoming films include "Big Trouble" with Tim Allen and "Run, Ronnie, Run," a big-screen version of the HBO sketch comedy series "Mr. Show."

It was the cachet of O'Brien's talk show that gave Richter the shot at sitcom stardom -- even though, he says, he had to overcome some stereotyping.

"I naively assumed that everyone knew I didn't just sit on the couch for seven years, that I was helping produce what I feel is one of the funniest shows in television," Richter said.

Instead, he found, "people were about as willing to let me run my own show as they would a spokesmodel that got a development deal."

After auditioning a parade of potential "showrunners" Richter found his man in Victor Fresco, whose credits include the hit "Mad About You" and the short-lived "The Trouble with Normal."

Did he seek advice from O'Brien? "We don't talk about work that much. ... He just got married, I have a relatively new baby. There's plenty of other things to talk about that are so much more interesting."

An office comedy with a touch of fantasy
Asked why he favored an office comedy over a family one, Richter gets a fleeting look of indigestion. Turns out the formulaic nature of TV sitcoms is hard for him to swallow.

"A nice executive -- not at Fox, but at another place -- said 'So, what kind of dad do you want to play?' I said I don't really want to do a family comedy. The next question seemed to be implicitly 'So what kind of office do you want to work in?'"

Networks, he said, want "something different but within the constraints of what everyone knows. ... I had a little bit of vertigo at different points (because) I'm doing an office comedy like a dozen other office comedies on the air."

But the fantasy element, he contends, sets his series apart.

Richter's own fantasy is a full-fledged movie career, the promise of which drew him into show business. The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native, who grew up in Yorkville, Illinois, studied film and video at Columbia College in Illinois.

"I went to film school because I loved the movies. I like going into a dark theater, watching images projected on a screen with an audience. I wanted to be a part of that."

He still does. But he may end up on a different path, Richter muses.

"The possibility exists that television is where I should be, based on what I contribute. And that would be fine."

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