Life as a Late-Night Sidekick

In its five years on the air, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" has become a hit with college students across the country in much the same way "Late Night with David Letterman" was for college students 15 years ago. It's likely that many of those students roll out of bed on mornings after watching "Conan" and stumble to class without much of a clue of what they really want to do with their lives.

  Andy Richter, O'Brien's sidekick since the start of the show in late summer 1993, knows the feeling well.

  Richter, 31, credits a blunt piece of advice from a counselor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 12 years ago with pointing him in the general direction that, after many twists and turns, led him to where he is now.

  Though he's now a big enough star that he's made a side career doing voice-overs for national commercials, Richter is still in touch with his Illinois roots. In fact, he holds the honor of being the only celebrity on the annual television summer press tour to inquire, "Is that the Illinois State Journal-Register?" after seeing my name tag. (Richter never mentions it in an interview during the press tour, but he does have Springfield connections. His parents, Laurence Richter and the former Glenda Palmer, grew up in Springfield and graduated from Lanphier High School. His uncle, Randy Richter, and an aunt, Nancy Canady, still live here, and his grandfather, Roy Richter, is a resident of the Westabbe retirement home in Springfield.)

  Richter, who grew up in Yorkville, spent the 1984 and 1985 school years at Illinois, where he took liberal arts classes in preparation for what he thought eventually would be a journalism or communications major. As a sophomore, he took a few film classes, and that interested him as well. When it came time to choose a major, he was fairly lacking in direction. "I had a conversation with a woman in the college of communications because I was planning on going on through there and finishing in communications. She said, `So what are you interested in doing?' And I said television, I think, or movies or something. And she said, `Well, what kind?' " Like many college sophomores, Richter hadn't really pondered the specifics of a career.

  "And I said, `Well, you know, I'd like to make TV shows. Not necessarily news. Writing scripts and stuff like that.' And she said, `Well, you shouldn't be here. You shouldn't be at this school.' Which was like she had hit me in the head with a brick or something." On his would-be counselor's advice, Richter enrolled the next fall at Columbia College in Chicago, which is well known for its film and performing arts departments. He looked at New York University and the University of California at Los Angeles, both of which have world-class film programs, but didn't have the money to enroll.

  "The hard part about that for me was I couldn't afford to live in the city, so I had to move back home after two years away and was commuting," says Richter.

  Richter finished at Columbia and got a job in television commercial production. He worked his way up from all-purpose assistant ("getting people coffee and unloading trucks," he says) to prop supervisor to set designer. He was working in television, but not on television. "I started just thinking this isn't really cutting it for me as far as being satisfied creatively. I had a friend that was taking improv classes, which was a great compromise for me because I didn't know if I wanted to be an actor or a writer and you're doing both."

  Improvisation -- an art that forces its students to think and respond instantly -- proved to be Richter's unknown calling.

  "For a lazy person like me, it's good because it's all immediate. You don't have to sit down and think about it and slave over it. So it was perfect and it really just kind of stuck, or I stuck to it."

  Richter received improvisational instruction from Del Close, a legendary improv teacher whose name appears on the resumes of countless comedic actors, and began performing in a variety of improv groups in Chicago. Among them was the Annoyance Theater, which put on a play called "The Real Live Brady Bunch."

  When the company took the show to New York for an eight-month run, Richter had the part of Mike Brady. A two-month run in Los Angeles helped get Richter enough notice to land a part in Chris Elliott's cult comedy movie "Cabin Boy." (To support himself during this time, Richter had taken a job as an assistant manager of a movie theater in Los Angeles. He notes that his greatest fear was that someone would see him in "Cabin Boy," then walk into the lobby and recognize him behind the candy counter.) This was in early 1993, and NBC had commissioned Lorne Michaels to design the show that would be the successor to Letterman's "Late Night." Michaels has a long history of recruiting talent from Chicago's improv community, most notably from the Second City, and Richter got a call when the show -- to be hosted by an unknown named Conan O'Brien -- began recruiting potential writers. The word "sidekick" was never mentioned. "He wasn't interviewing for sidekicks. He was looking for writers. I was hired as a writer," says Richter. "I knew that I would be doing something on the show. But I wasn't really sure how."

  As it turned out, Richter and O'Brien hit it off immediately, and when "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" debuted on Sept. 13, 1993, Richter was onstage in an Ed McMahon-like role.

  Richter soon expanded the role of talk-show sidekick, frequently becoming a player in skits and comedy bits done outside the studio. Richter often delivers flashes of his dry, understated humor during guest interview segments, and he has become as much a symbol of the show's quirky comedy as trademark characters like The Heroic Scotsman, the Shirtless Moron, Tomorry the Ostrich, the Gaseous Weiner, Triumph the Comic Insult Dog and -- a fan favorite -- the Masturbating Bear. After a shaky start during which critics regularly savaged it, the show seemed to find itself. A combination of lesser-known music acts and the aforementioned army of comic characters gave the show its distinct tone. Richter says the greatest honor is being part of a show that can be to young adults today what Letterman's show was to him. "There are college kids out there thinking about our show the same way I thought about David Letterman. I thought that was the funniest show in the world. I had such a sense of kinship with that show and just such an identification with that show.

  "I felt like it gave me so much. It gave me so much fun. And it had very much a formative effect on my sense of humor. So if I'm doing that, then that's pretty cool."

This article is copyright of the State Journal Register in Springfield, Ill, Sept 17, 1998. This article was written by Matthew Dietrich. Thanks to Mr. Richard for sending me the article.