Andy Richter: Ex-sidekick, now possibilist

BY KEN WALCZAK

This semester, I am taking the best class. Dr. Alan Stone’s Law and Literature seminar. Two hours on Tuesday afternoons. Wine and cookies and great books. What more could an artsy grad student ask for?

Sure, it’s a lot of work for the two credits, but aren’t all seminars? Besides, I am in love with every page of the reading, especially the 700 or so which harbor Robert Musil’s splendiferous prose. Never heard of Musil? Neither had I, until I took this course. But now, I can’t get enough of the guy. I have conquered The Man Without Qualities, Volume I and plan to dive headlong into the second installment — despite the fact that it is beyond the scope of the syllabus, posthumously published and even longer than the first. This is how much I am loving Musil.

I hope you can imagine, then, how excited I was to catch last night’s premiere of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, on the FOX Network. After a brief, comical diversion (claiming that the show is about a 4-year-old foot doctor … who isn’t very good), this new sitcom quickly justifies its existence. In superlative voiceover, Andy explains that his is a show about life’s endless possibilities. Hence the foot-doctor joke — Andy could have based his show on that half-baked premise, but he didn’t.

We should thank Andy for this — not only because he chose an appealing sit for his com, but also for endeavoring to bring the joys of Robert Musil to the general population. Ulrich, the protagonist in Musil’s massive tome, is after all a man with a highly developed sense of possibility, blessed with the “ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not.” Many of Ulrich’s insights into the human condition (See in particular Chapter 84, “Assertion that Ordinary Life, Too, is Utopian”) radiate out of this aspect of his character.

Andy Richter’s TV personality apparently shares the realization that the world as we know it, its dominant customs, values and mores, has come into being pursuant to a surprisingly random, haphazard process of selection (what Prof. Unger might term a crisis of imagination vis-à-vis the number and permutation of social “institutional arrangements”). Everything that is, could just as easily not be, in favor of some other eventuality. Seen in this light, as by no means inevitable, the social fabric appears to Ulrich and Andy as woven of pretty flimsy stuff. Reality is not so real after all; presumably this is why Musil’s 1996 translators chose “Pseudoreality Prevails” as the subtitle for most of The Man Without Qualities, Volume I.

I know, I know. This is heady stuff for FOX primetime (just for laughs, cf. celebrity boxing or The Glutton Bowl …). But somehow it’s not too much for Conan’s ex-sidekick to pull off. Within five minutes of Controls the Universe, Andy has both demonstrated his mastery of the reality/unreality spectrum, and illustrated it masterfully for the folks at home.

The technique, it must be said, is not revolutionary. It’s not even particularly new. Viewers of Six Feet Under or even Ally MacBeal should find it entirely old hat. Andy spends his days at work (he’s a writer of instruction manuals for a defense contractor) engaged in imaginary conversations with the firm’s long-dead founder, deflecting jabs at his self-image only slightly fiercer than those bandied about in the interior monologue. When that doesn’t keep him busy, Andy fantasizes about the new secretary or plots the downfall of an annoying new coworker. We see him act out his nascent schemes; when he doesn’t follow through, the scene replays, this time as “reality.”

As I say, using the magic of TV to perform this kind of double-take isn’t new or innovative. It is, however, perfect for the Musil-esque theme of endless possibilities. Plus it keeps the show fast-paced and unpredictable — when Andy does something outlandish and doesn’t double-take, it’s truly surprising. The structure even plays to Richter’s strengths as a comic actor; deadpan catch phrases like “I’m shy — it’s endearing!!” work fabulously when placed in relief by the imaginary antics. Ditto for witty rejoinders (Andy’s Boss: “You’ve never taken this job seriously!” Andy: “But I’m really good at it!”).

What I’m trying to say is that Andy Richter Controls the Universe is damn funny. This despite the odds against it — the historical track record for ex-sidekicks, usual standards for prime-time FOX programming, etc. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s unusual (“would a bad person encase themselves in puppies like this?”), and it’s got ripe bunches of philosophy hanging from its vines. I’ve chosen to obsess over the pseudoreality thing, but Tuesday’s pilot also featured some astute commentary on the multifaceted nature of what my friend Renee might call “lookism.” Ripe for the picking, I tell you.

All you have to do is watch, laugh and hope that Rupert Murdoch’s cronies don’t get antsy. If FOX gives Andy Richter a longer trial period than The Tick, and a better time slot than Futurama, it’ll be a small miracle. More importantly, it will mean the establishment of a legitimate weekly excuse for putting aside the heavy books.

Andy Richter Controls the Universe airs Tuesday evenings at 8:30 pm on FOX. A special encore of the premiere episode airs this Thursday, March 21, at 9 pm. The Man without Qualities is available from Wordsworth Books, Harvard Square (both volumes), or the Law School Coop (Volume I). Quantities at both locations are limited, but the latter may feature discounts on “used” copies — returns by the Law and Literature students who just couldn’t hang.

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