Judge Erich Asperschlager is pretty sure the universe is on cruise control.
"See the world through my eyes/I think you'll be surprised."
Comedian Andy Richter has come full circle. He became famous as Conan O'Brien's late night sidekick, a position he held until he left the show in 2000. Recently, it was revealed that Richter will join O'Brien when he takes over The Tonight Show, not as sidekick this time but announcer. The journey to and from late night comedy has been rocky for Richter. His three shots at sitcoms all ended in premature cancellation (his latest attempt, 2007's Andy Barker, P.I. ended after only four episodes). His first sitcom, the Victor Fresco-created Andy Richter Controls the Universe, was a slice of surreal genius. I remember it replacing Judd Apatow's similarly short-lived Undeclared in early 2002, before Tuesdays on FOX were reserved for a certain megahit singing competition. Both shows were hilarious, but only Apatow's got a DVD release—until now. Richter is finally out in a complete series set, and it's just as great as I remember.
Facts of the Case
Andy Richter Controls the Universe: The Complete Series has all 19 episodes, including five that never aired, across three discs:
• "Grief Counselor"
• "Little Andy in Charge"
• "Gimme A C"
• "Holy Sheep"
• "Relationship Ripcord"
• "The Show Might Go On"
• "Crazy in Rio"
• "The Maid Man"
• "Duh Dog"
• "Final Fantasy"
• "Saturday Early Evening Fever"
• "Charity Begins In D Block"
Andy Richter Controls the Universe used to be the funniest non-mid-'90s-MTV-sketch-comedy show that never got a DVD release. Those days are finally over. As objective as I try to be about writing reviews, I'm an unabashed fan of this brilliant cult comedy. I loved it when it was on, and honestly never thought I'd see it again. I was thrilled to hear it was being released, and I'm excited to report that it's still awesome.
In many ways, Andy Richter Controls the Universe is more live-action cartoon than sitcom. The basic premise is that we see the world through Andy's fertile imagination, with its Walter Mitty-esque fantasies and alternate scenarios for the relatively mundane life of a technical writer. It's not unusual for a scene to play out halfway before the record scratches and Richter's narration breaks in with an, "OK, here's what really happened." The series was the brainchild of Victor Fresco, who originally called the project Anything Can Happen. It was a perfect fit for Richter's lovable schlub.
Andy shares his universe with one of TV comedy's best ensemble casts. Paget Brewster (who should be familiar to most viewers) plays the icy Jessica. Strong, sexy, and a little bit scary, she slides effortlessly between subtle annoyance and full-on physical comedy.
You might recognize Jonathan Slavin from his recent television work, but to me he'll always be Andy's moody officemate Byron. Slavin is given some of the most ridiculous non-imagined plotlines in the series, including membership in a church that believes in a giant omnipotent sheep, and a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that slowly turn him into a pimp.
James Patrick Stuart is more than just a pretty face. Keith could have been a vapid caricature, but Stuart's charm and timing make him downright lovable (of course, how could you not love that smile?).
The biggest tragedy about Irene Molloy as cutie-pie Wendy is that after Richter she gave up acting to pursue a singing career. I'm just glad a whole new audience gets the chance to see her considerable comedic chops on DVD.
The premise is solid, and the cast is terrific, but the genius of Andy Richter Controls the Universe is its writing. By building it around the idea of Richter's imagination, he's free to go to absurd visual places—like dressing Andy in a coat of puppies to show how lovable he is, or showing Richter and O'Brien in a montage of wealthy eccentric decadence. It also allows for characters like Mr. Pickering (John Bliss), the imagined ghost of the company's despicable founder, who often walks Andy from the elevators to his office, offering him racist advice and mocking him.
Many of the best episodes skewer political correctness, putting Andy in impossible situations and pushing the boundaries of acceptable sitcom fodder. In "Little Andy in Charge," he can't decide whether a little thing like his beautiful girlfriend hating Jewish people is reason enough to break up with her, letting his libido temporarily convince him that it might be one of those "agree to disagree" situations. My favorite of these episodes, though, is "We're the Same, Only Different." After offending his Irish co-worker, who happens to be black, Andy starts dating the guy's sister, and can't figure out how to handle the situation. In the end, he decides to "embrace, and ignore, everything that [makes the two of them] totally different and exactly the same." If that's not the perfect distillation of American multicultural expectations, I don't know what is.
Along with the 14 episodes that aired on FOX, this set also has five episodes that have only been shown in rare reruns. If you've never seen them before, you're in for a treat. "Final Fantasy" in particular is up there with the best of the series, and not just because it includes an extended fantasy scene with Keith as an armored knight with a pageboy haircut.
Only FOX would let episodes starring big time guest stars like Marilu Henner (who plays herself in audio snippets of Andy's humiliating sex tape) and June Lockhart languish in unaired obscurity. Thankfully, the series' best guest star appearance made it in the original run. Conan O'Brien's turn as crazy Freddie Pickering is one of this set's highlights. Seeing him and Richter together again is a little bittersweet, but knowing they'll be working together again soon makes it better.
There was some confusion when this set was first announced. Some sources reported it would be full screen format. Those sources were wrong. The episodes are in their original widescreen, and though there's a little bit of softness here and there, for the episodes mostly look great. On the audio front, the 2.0 stereo soundtrack is clear and well-balanced, from the frequent voiceovers to the punk-ish title song.
The extras are more of a mixed bag. Disc one has two audio commentaries, recorded by Richter and Fresco, for "Pilot" and "Little Andy in Charge." It's just too bad they didn't record anything for other top-tier episodes like "We're All the Same" and "Crazy In Rio." Disc three has the last two extras, a 20-minute retrospective called "How Andy Richter Controlled the Universe" and a goofy four-minute piece that asks the cast "What if Andy Richter Controlled the Universe?" "How" is a fun collection of interviews with the cast and Fresco made especially for this release. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes info and mutual admiration. It's easy to forgive, though, because the compliments are all well-deserved.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Besides the lack of extras, the thing that might rile fans is that some of the music has been changed. At least, that's what it says on the back of the case. As far as I can tell, Greg Burns, Jeff Burns, and Brian Kirk's memorable score is intact, as is Jason Cropper's theme. A few scenes, though, have the whiff of alteration. At the end of "Final Fantasy," for example, medieval hunchback Andy pole dances to a song that sounds suspiciously like it was written to replace Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy."
If you love quirky TV comedy and hate FOX's track record of booting high-concept, low-rated shows, Andy Richter Controls the Universe is for you. This gut-bustingly funny series deserves a second chance on DVD; I couldn't be happier to recommend it.
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