Andy Richter on Being Home for the Holidays, Bringing Andy Barker Back and Being a Professional Smart-Ass
Andy Richter's Home for the Holidays may look like a traditional holiday special, but where it airs (Seeso) and who produces it (the Upright Citizens Brigade) should tell you otherwise. Andy's "son" farts out Christmas songs, Bjork tells the story of the Little Drummer Boy, "Michelle Obama" shows up, a magical talking gift gets strangled, and a tipsy British Christmas tree stands in the living room.
It seems like a perfect fit, though, for Richter, who's love of silly, absurd comedy has been a part of his career ever since he first sat down as Conan O'Brien's sidekick on Late Night in 1993. Two sitcoms he did during the decade between Conan stints, Andy Richter Controls the Universe and Andy Barker, P.I., are still missed by fans of smart comedy. And since Conan's 2009-10 stint as host of The Tonight Show, he's been back at Conan's side, currently as the announcer and sidekick on Conan.
We sat down with Richter to talk about the holiday special, how it feels to be the longest-tenured late night team, and whether he'd be willing to bring back those cult sitcoms if Seeso or any other streaming service wanted to revive it.
Saw the special last night. That was quite interesting and funny.
Yeah? Good. Funny is the main thing.
You recorded it at UCB out there in LA?
We did, yeah. It was a performance just for the filming of the special so it was a live taping of it and we did two versions of it, or we did it twice so that we would have some choices for editing.
Was it something that you had done at UCB a few times and then taped one or it was actually put together for the purposes of doing this special?
This was filmed specifically for Seeso, but it was a live UCB show. It could have fit anywhere on the regular UCB roster and most of the people that are in the show are people that are in other UCB shows and a lot of the characters and some of the different sketch components are things that have come from other places. Matt Besser had this idea to do this Christmas special and actually they tried to get it together last year and then just the clock ticked out. We didn't have time to film it before Christmas time came, so they got a little earlier jump on it this year and put it together with me as the emcee.
We've seen a lot of parodies of that kind of old fashioned, Andy Williams-style Christmas special. Stephen Colbert did one a number of years ago. What did Matt want to accomplish with this idea?
Oh I think nothing high minded, just to get a UCB holiday theme. They had a lot of holiday themed stuff, like Sappidy Tappidy the drunken English Christmas tree. John Daily has been doing that character for years and has done specific Christmas versions of that character, so I think it was meant to be a showcase for that kind of stuff. That definitely to lend a UCB sensibility, which is kind of ... It is pretty raunchy and pretty broad and a lot of good dirty filthy affronts to the common sensibility.
How do you construct the show where you have to improvise inside a structure? For instance at some point Lauren Lapkus, who plays your wife, has to say "I wonder who's at the door?" in order to go to the next segment.
You pretty much said it. There is a script and there is kind of the connective tissue that leads you from one sketch to another and a lot of that stuff is written, although there is always plenty of room to just put little embellishments on it. You know what you've got to say, you've got to say, "Who is at the door?", but there's different ways you can say it as long as you get around to asking who is at the door.
[Besser as] Bjork comes in, she tells the story of the Little Drummer Boy and then as she goes through her take on the Little Drummer Boy anyone can ask any questions or Bjork can ask questions, so there is ... You know for a couple of minutes here Bjork has an outline she is going to do but we can play off of that. I think people have this notion that filming improv is [that] they just say "action" and then just everybody does whatever they want, but there are so many technical aspects to it, like keeping you in focus. Like you can't just get up and run around because there is a camera person that has got to follow you and has got to know what you are doing. You've got to have the lighting right, you've got to make sure that whoever is miking them can hear them and that they are not crossing into somebody else's shot that has been set up. It is very much a choreographed dance whenever you are shooting something and what improvising you can do is usually within a slot.
When someone says something completely out of left field, how hard is it to break character and start laughing your ass off? Is it just practice?
It just practice and discipline. Actually, in the rehearsals of this, because having done ... I've been kind of a friend/family member of UCB since the very beginning because I've known those guys forever and when they first came to New York and were just performing in the basement of a place downtown I saw their very first show and I was very involved in a lot of their early shows doing monologues and doing improv with them.
When I do shows with them I'm frequently now playing myself and I can laugh at ... I'm just being myself on stage and if somebody says something funny I can laugh and I had to keep reminding myself during the rehearsals of this one, I'm playing a very fake version of myself so I've got to keep it together. It is just discipline. There are people counting on you to get things done. The guys hanging lights there, they are not there for your artistic experimentation, they are there to get things done and get back to their families.
What was the funniest, most surprising thing that anybody did on stage during those two performances and did it end up making it in?
There was nothing like that that I can think of. It was a pretty well rehearsed show. I knew that there was going to be a song, a Christmas carol or a Christmas song with approximately forty or fifty fart noises and so I knew that was coming and I knew like, okay this is not exactly what one would call high intellectual comedy, and yet I really, really laughed the first time he performed that. There is just some things are just elementally funny. There are things that make you laugh when you are three years old that are going to make you laugh when you are ninety.
On Conan, I've always found that you are very quick responding to people. Is that a skill that you honed being a friend of UCB or did you have that in you and it just improved over time?
That was what used to get me yelled at in high school was just basic smart-ass responses to things. My mother made the point years ago that I now make a living doing the things that used to get me in trouble at school. When I was younger in grade school I definitely was the kid who couldn't stay at my desk and couldn't shut up, but then as I got older into high school and junior high is when I got to be more just a smart ass.
Especially there is nothing worse than a—I don't know about worse, but there is something very particular about the situation of a high school kid who is smarter than his teacher and who is not afraid to be an a--hole about it, which is sort of what I was. Although I did learn that if you can say something smart-alecky to a teacher and make them laugh it really makes it hard for them to scold you. Like if they are angry but they are also laughing that is a really sweet victory that I learned long ago. I mean definitely doing improv is certainly a sharpening of a skill that was already there, or of a talent or of a character feature. I always was pretty quick and always could come up with a good joke, but doing it for a living is, it gets you in even better shape to do it.
Did being the smart ass in school either get you out of detention or get you out of getting beat up?
No, not getting beat up, just keeping from being bored mainly. Most of it was probably just amusing myself and then like I say, to getting frustrated by teachers that were—I mean I had some great teachers but then I also had some teachers who were not so great and they weren't that nice or respectful to the kids and I think that always annoyed me, so those were always the ones who inspired me more.
Does twenty-plus years of doing this kind of work also help when you are sitting next to, say, Jennifer Aniston promoting her movie and you can feel you can riff off something Conan is said or something she said and you don't really care what their response is going to be to that?
Well it ought to be. I'm essentially, in much of what I do on television, I'm improvising and one of the keys to improvising, and you can read this in a book about improv, is giving yourself the freedom and the permission to fail, because if you are worried about failing you are not going to do anything, you are just going to sit there and you are going to be in a guarded position that is based out of fear, whereas if you give yourself permission to fail, sure, say it. Why not?
That isn't to say that I just spout off all the time. It is not about me scoring, it is about the show being good and it is about contributing to the whole of the product and making the show funny, but I certainly ... I don't care and that is not because I'm a rebel, or that is not because I'm a snot, it is because that is how my particular job has to be in order to work. I have to not care. Because if I do care I won't be good.
It doesn't seem like that long ago where you and Conan were the young upstarts of late night and now you guys have been in late night the longest now. Have you guys just been pushing forward, not thinking about that?
I don't think about it. Like when you just said it now I was kind of like ... It is something that has been said before but I do think like, oh yeah ... Like is Carson Daly still on? [Laughs] I feel like even if Carson Daly was still on, we came on before Carson Daily, so no I don't think about it. I just turned fifty and that kind of blows my mind.
I don't think about it because there is not really any percentage in it for me to be thinking about myself as some sort of old man of television or some kind of tenured professor of the comedy club. I still haven't figured myself out yet. I'm still not exactly sure what my place in this universe is ... Which I think is a fairly common thing in the human condition, is everybody, no matter what their age, they feel like they are about fourteen inside, they are about the same person they always were. That is a survival technique, but it is also a kind of learned behavior. Nothing would be more boring for our show than for Conan and I patting ourselves on the back for our longevity. I don't think either one of us care.
And you guys still have one of the youngest audiences in late night anyway, so there is something to be said for that, all things considered.
Yes, for our lack of maturity. Our continued, relentless lack of maturity. We are doing something right or wrong, I'm not sure which.
Do you go with Conan on some of his overseas trips?
No, the Berlin one was the first one that I went on.
What is it about this era of his career where he wants to set off and go to these different countries and do this kind of "big tall redheaded goofy guy in the middle of this foreign country" schtick? What has inspired him and the writers to go do that over the last couple of years?
Well the first thing I think was, somebody had the idea and the access to go to Cuba and it just seemed like too good of an idea for him to turn down. Then I just think he pure and simple enjoys it. It interests him. I mean while we say we try to keep it out of our minds that we are the longest standing late night guys, and we don't dwell on it, but the fact is, we have been doing this a long time and we do have to sometimes make conscious efforts to keep it fresh and I think that this is one of those.
He stumbled on this kind of international travel, he really enjoys it, it speaks to him in a particular way and I think it also ... Our show has always been kind of absurd and silly and I think this is a way too for him to feel he could do something that is a little larger than what we normally do in the studio.
If one of the streaming networks came back to you and said, came to you and said, hey, we want to get Andy Richter Controls the Universe back on, do a revival of Andy Barker, P.I., would you do it? If so would there be a condition under which you would do that again?
I probably would, yeah I would love to. I feel like both of those shows should have and could have gone a lot longer than they did. I hesitate to say "before their time" or anything like that, because I don't ... There are so many things that cause the cancellation of a show that occur well before whether or not it is a quality show or whether or not it deserves to go on. It is usually financial, it is quite frequently has to do with various kind of personalities or regime changes at a network, or a lot of these networks, they decide that they have some kind of mission statement that they are going to follow for a while and you say to then, well what about a show like this and they say no.
I think that a lot of these people just get paid to have these rules and then enforce them so it seems like they are doing something, but every one of these rules is just waiting to be broken by someone and then it is not a rule anymore. Nobody really knows. Everyone is always chasing whatever the last success was. Except for the visionary people who actually figure out what the next new thing is and the people that are brave enough to give them money to do it.
Is it ironic to you that those two shows probably would have succeeded on a Hulu or at Amazon as opposed to when they were on the networks?
I mean it doesn't bother me. It seems like, okay, yeah that makes sense. I don't lose any sleep over it. I'm still making television, I'm still proud of the work that I do. I'm still keeping my kids fed. I certainly would love to get back to, at a certain point, doing more narrative fictional comedy kind of acting, writing, work like that, but that is not where my paycheck is right now. If somebody was going to do that, like I say, I would be happy to do it. Especially either one of those shows, I was very proud of both of those shows. Especially Andy Barker, P.I.; I mean we got to do two mid-seasons of Andy Richter Controls the Universe so there is a nice body of work there, but Andy Barker, P.I., through decisions made by people at the network, was never even given a chance.
Somebody said no, and then somebody above them said yes, give them a little money, let's go ahead and try it, but it was always kind of a stillborn project and it is was a real shame because the cast was amazing and that is always an alchemy, is getting together a good cast. That show wasn't a genius concept, that was just kind of ... That show might have just been called "Talented Funny Actors Ganging Out," because that was ... Good jokes, good solid jokes, good solid writing, but there was nothing about that concept that mattered more than the fact that those people were in that show.
Do you see you and Conan doing late night TV as long as Letterman did? Like into your mid sixties? Going thirty years?
I mean I can't answer for him, but I don't think I could. I think ... It is a great job, but I just ... I don't think I would be able to do that. My attention span is too short. Going to the same place every day and doing, you know, a version of the same thing every day, it is a real luxury and I love where I work and I love the people that I work with and for, but it is not like ... I have had to alter my character to that.
I have always responded better to new faces and new places, so the notion of doing this for another ten or fifteen years, which that would put me into my mid-sixties, I don't think he'd want to do it, but I don't know. Who knows? It depends. Some days it sounds like he is going to quit in a week and then other days it seems like he could never let it go.
Andy Richter's Home for the Holidays, Premiere, Tuesday, Dec. 20, Seeso
Conan, Weeknights, 11/10c, TBSAlertMe