“Andy Richter Controls the Universe” has the potential to be the most talked about comedy of the 2001-02 season, a true water-cooler conversation generator that will have viewers in stitches on Wednesday mornings as they recount Andy’s antics from the night before. Richter is a bumbler driven by an overwhelming concern to do more good than bad, constantly looking for ways to compensate for his occasionally devious ways. The writing toys with the absurd — especially when it concerns the libido — keeping the bizarre stuff on a short leash. Chalk up another programming victory for Fox.
The writing, the ensemble and the use of music from the 1960s and ’70s combine to make for an uproarious debut — each of the first three episodes improves on its predecessor, taking material that could offend in less talented hands and letting the wit explode onscreen. Andy’s inner-thoughts play a key role in the comedy, a conceit that has grown tired elsewhere, yet he employs the trick to maximum effect. Richter spent seven years as Conan O’Brien’s sidekick and despite a growing list of bigscreen credits, he appears perfectly suited for this sort of “everyman” comedy.
Andy, the primary character in the no-last-name comedy, writes operating manuals for a major Chicago company. He thinks about sex. He is smitten with the receptionist ,Wendy (Irene Molloy), and often has trouble expressing his true feelings. She’s new in town and, without thinking, has begun sleeping with the handsome guy, Keith (James Patrick Stuart), one of Andy’s friends. Their boss is Jessica (Paget Brewster); Byron (Jonathan Slavin) is the creepy new hire forced to share an office with Andy.
“Universe” opens with a few of Andy’s hallucinations — Wendy crawling into bed with him, his company’s founder chiding his lack of accomplishment — before putting him in the good guy/bad guy dilemma. In episode one it concerns sabotaging Byron’s art work; in the second one, he gets his chance with Wendy; in the third, he has to come to terms with sleeping with a beautiful anti-Semite. There’s a playful tone to the series that makes its occasional juvenile lapses easy to digest. It’s “Seinfeld” with a moral compass.
Brewster, playing a firm boss, is a comic ace who truly gets to let loose in the third episode when she’s sleep-deprived from too much clubbing. As Wendy, Molloy’s reactions are subtle yet articulate — as the object of Andy’s desires her fetching looks are amped up, yet the writers prop up her character on levels beyond attractiveness. The opposite is true of Keith, a personality-free pretty boy, whose purpose is little more than suffering the slings of Andy’s imagination. And Slavin, as the sheepish Byron, doesn’t quite give his mates the willies, but boy is he close.
Show’s executive producers Victor Fresco and Andy Ackerman hail from the infinitely less funny skeins “The Trouble With Normal” and “Becker.” With so few names in the producing and writing ranks, “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” has the feel of a singular vision — there isn’t a single line in any of the three episodes that felt like it was written by a committee.
Levie Isaacks’s photography puts this show on the top shelf of sitcoms alongside “Malcolm in the Middle.” Casting by Julie Mossberg and Jill Anthony, including the hiring of Rick Hoffman (“Philly”) to play a smug higher-up, is superlative.