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
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
"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
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
for national commercials, Richter is still in touch with his
In fact, he holds the honor of being the only celebrity on the
summer press tour to inquire, "Is that the Illinois State
after seeing my name tag. (Richter never mentions it in an
the press tour, but he does have Springfield connections. His
Laurence Richter and the former Glenda Palmer, grew up in
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
at Illinois, where he took liberal arts classes in preparation
he thought eventually would be a journalism or communications
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
"I had a conversation with a woman in the college of
I was planning on going on through there and finishing in
She said, `So what are you interested in doing?' And I said
I think, or movies or something. And she said, `Well, what
kind?' " Like
many college sophomores, Richter hadn't really pondered the
"And I said, `Well, you know, I'd like to make TV shows.
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
Richter enrolled the next fall at Columbia College in Chicago,
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
"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
Richter finished at Columbia and got a job in television
He worked his way up from all-purpose assistant ("getting
and unloading trucks," he says) to prop supervisor to set
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
I had a friend that was taking improv classes, which was a
for me because I didn't know if I wanted to be an actor or a
you're doing both."
Improvisation -- an art that forces its students to think and
-- 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
and it really just kind of stuck, or I stuck to it."
Richter received improvisational instruction from Del Close, a
improv teacher whose name appears on the resumes of countless
and began performing in a variety of improv groups in Chicago.
was the Annoyance Theater, which put on a play called "The
Real Live Brady
When the company took the show to New York for an eight-month
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
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
that would be the successor to Letterman's "Late
Night." Michaels has a
long history of recruiting talent from Chicago's improv
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
writers. The word "sidekick" was never mentioned.
"He wasn't interviewing
for sidekicks. He was looking for writers. I was hired as a
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,
"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,
a player in skits and comedy bits done outside the studio.
delivers flashes of his dry, understated humor during guest
and he has become as much a symbol of the show's quirky comedy
characters like The Heroic Scotsman, the Shirtless Moron,
Tomorry the Ostrich,
the Gaseous Weiner, Triumph the Comic Insult Dog and -- a fan
-- the Masturbating Bear. After a shaky start during which
savaged it, the show seemed to find itself. A combination of
music acts and the aforementioned army of comic characters gave
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
are college kids out there thinking about our show the same way
about David Letterman. I thought that was the funniest show in
I had such a sense of kinship with that show and just such an
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.