With the NCAA Tournament’s return to TBS this week comes the joy of Conan spillover — and with it Andy Richter, the most famous wingman since Ed McMahon. It’s a position he’s held with Conan O’Brien off and on since 1993, from the early days of NBC to their all-too-brief tenure at the Tonight Show to their latest. We caught up with the 45-year-old comedian to discuss his latest forays into politics, improv, and the best day job a man can hope for.
Eric Spitznagel: It’s been a big year for you and impressions.
Andy Richter: Has it?
It has. Let’s start with your Newt Gingrich impression on Conan.
O’Brien did a fine Callista, but your Newt was masterful. Do you feel like it might’ve affected the GOP primaries?
No more than New Gingrich affects the primaries just by being Newt Gingrich.
So you don’t take any responsibility for him not getting the Republican nomination?
God I hope not. Honestly, I don’t know what affects that side of the electorate. Maybe visions in potato chips? Patterns in the sky? It’s very strange what’s going on over there.
Is it not possible that Republican voters could be watching late night talk shows to form their political opinions?
I’ve never gotten that feeling. I don’t see us as an anti-birth control kinda show.
What is the Conan show’s official stance on birth control?
I don’t believe we have one. Which doesn’t mean people don’t automatically think about birth control when they watch our show. It puts them in the mindset of birth control. “This should have been stopped long ago!”
I read an interview with Julianna Moore where she talked about preparing to play Sarah Palin in Game Change, and she apparently filled her iPod with nothing but Palin’s speeches. Did you do anything like that with Newt?
I’m not that professional. I frequently don’t know I’ll be doing New Gingrich until they’re handing me a wig at rehearsal.
So why are you so good at it? Do you and Newt have more in common than we realize?
We have the same doughy old baby face. It’s like an elderly baby. That’s where the genius of my impersonation begins and ends.
Your other big acting performance that we need to talk about is Emily Dickinson.
That’s right. Probably my finest hour as an actor. Will any of your readers know what we’re talking about?
The cool ones will.
I played Dickinson on something called the Dead Authors Podcast. Do you want to explain it or should I?
You’d probably do a better job.
It’s a podcast hosted by Paul F. Tompkins.
Some people might remember him as a regular on HBO’s Mr. Show.
Only the cool people.
Not even worth mentioning that to the rest.
So Tompkins plays science fiction author H.G. Wells, who uses his time machine to go back and do interviews with dead authors, which is probably the best possible use of a time machine.
It really is.
Forget killing Hitler, let’s see what Erma Bombeck has to say.
Did you specifically ask to do Emily Dickinson, or was she assigned to you?
Paul just tells you to pick an author. But I don’t read a lot of fiction. I prefer the nonfiction stuff. And as you know already, I’m not much of a impressionist. So I thought, I’ll pick somebody ridiculous.
And Dickinson seemed ridiculous?
Ridiculous as in easy. I knew I could just throw on an old Jonathan Winters’ granny outfit and pass for her.
I had no idea you wore a costume.
Yeah. The whole thing is done in front of an audience at the Upright Citizens Brigade (theater in Los Angeles). I’m sure there are photos available somewhere. I made our poor wardrobe department (at Conan) put together a whole ensemble for me. I said “Please get me a long black choir robe and some sort of lace collar and a gray wig.”
And that was the extent of your research?
I may have read a few of Dickinson’s poems. But I don’t think I used any of it. I mostly made her some sort of uptight repressed sexual weirdo. My version of her had nothing whatsoever to do with historical fact.
For a split second, I worried that your weirdo comment would get a lot of hate mail from Dickinson fans.
(Laughs.) Probably not. They don’t seem like extroverts.
Or big readers of post-19th century correspondence.
That too, yeah.
So your Emily Dickinson was all made up? I thought I was learning something.
The part about her writing most of her poems in saliva?
What about her charming mutt named Carlo, or that she was slowly poisoning her sister?
Could be true, I don’t know. That was about as sweaty an improv as you’re going to find. We were already skating on thin ice, and then it just got thinner and thinner as it went on. It’s a very long hour or whatever it was.
But you said you read a few of her poems. What’s your favorite?
Oh Jesus, stop it. Just stop it.
You can’t remember any, can you?
No, I don’t know any Emily Dickinson poems! Are you happy now?
I only know “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.” And that’s only because of the Woody Allen book.
You might as well ask me about hockey. It’s as much a mystery to me.
I’d love to ask you a super-obscure hockey question right now, but I’m about as clueless as you are.
Is the Stanley Cup related to hockey? That’s a hockey thing, right?
It sounds like something having to do with hockey.
Who’s Stanley? He must have been a big hockey guy, right?
I guess so.
Back to this Dead Authors Podcast, I’m actually surprised you went with Dickinson. Not just because you clearly know nothing about her….
But I always saw you more as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
You think so?
He was like Hemingway’s sidekick. So right there, you guys have something in common.
I briefly considered doing Edgar Allan Poe and just swearing a lot.
Was Poe a big curser?
Oh yeah, Poe was just filthy. Like a filthy drunk. (Laughs.) I don’t know, maybe.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and motherfucking weary.”
See? It works. These things are tough. I have so much going on in my life, so many walls to stare at, I can’t spend a lot of time thinking about these podcasts.
You do improv pretty regularly on Conan. From what I know about improv, you need to have a lot of knowledge about everything. Are you constantly reading and watching TV, just to fill the well?
I really don’t. Anything that I read, I read because I’m interested in it. The only thing that I’ll occasionally do, and it sounds so much classier the way you’re putting it, I might do something like, “I guess I better watch the American Idol finale, cause we might be doing a bit about it on the show and then I can chip in.” For me it’s all about, “I better keep up on dumb-dumb culture.” And even then, I can’t do much of that stuff. I can’t watch a second of the goddamn Bachelor, regardless of how much they’re paying me.
You did improv in Chicago, at theaters like iO and the Annoyance.
That’s right. But even when I did improv, I wasn’t really bookish. I think the people that are best at it, they don’t think about it much. That’s the whole key to improv. That’s the key to being good at anything.
The less you seem to care, the better you are?
That’s exactly it. The basic equation that mystified me as a young man was looking at guys that could actually get girls. I was always amazed, because they never seemed to care. I was like, “How do they do that?” It’s a tremendously attractive thing. It’s the same thing with improv. We’ll fall in love with you, but only if you act like you don’t give a shit.
You can’t fake that.
You really can’t. Audiences can smell bullshit. They smell fear.
Was it that same sensibility, that combination of trivia smarts and don’t-give-a-shit confidence, that helped you win Celebrity Jeopardy?
AR: That kind of crept up on me. The first time I did it was almost exactly ten years prior. And the first time, I definitely sweated it out. I practiced. I had a PlayStation with a Jeopardy home game, and I practiced on it all the time. I don’t know that it actually did anything for me or gave me any insights like “Oh, I better learn my state capitals.” You just have to hope that all the bullshit knowledge is there and you can regurgitate it when you need to under pressure.
Isn’t there something tricky about the buzzer?
Oh yeah, a lot of Jeopardy comes down to buzzer shit. You can either do it or you can’t. You’re looking at a board that you can’t see with the question on it, and there are lights like the countdown at a dog race. You know what I mean? The lights go down, down and when they hit the bottom you go. And if you push the button too soon, you’re locked out for half a second. So you have to do this “one, two, three, push.” You have to have that rhythm innate or you’re going to screw it up. It’s largely an athletic competition involving just the thumb.
That’s funny. Most people think it’s about who knows the most random minutiae.
It helps to know the answers too. Anyway, the second time I did it, it kind of snuck up on me, I didn’t even remember I’d agreed to do it. It was like two days before and I was like, “Oh shit! I have to go do Jeopardy!” The night before I might’ve looked at an Almanac. But I quickly realized “This is hopeless.” I just decided to do it cold and see what happened.
And you dominated.
I don’t know about that.
Are you kidding me? You were like a blitzkrieg of trivia.
I am proud that it was a little tougher than regular Celebrity Jeopardy, because it was Celebrity Tournament of Champions. It was all the previous winners. But it’s still the short bus of Jeopardy. As good as I did, I think I’d do just okay on regular Jeopardy against the real nerds.
It’s a little easier when your competition is Wolf Blitzer, fumbling with the buzzer with his old man hands.
People are constantly wanting to give me figurative high fives over that. But I’m a little queasy about it. The poor guy was really lost. I just felt kinda bad for him.
He wasn’t talking trash backstage?
Oh no, not at all. He is exactly what you’d expect Wolf Blitzer to be. (In a Wolf Blitzer voice.) He’s a newsman and he’s very serious and convivial. But I think his ego took a beating. He hightailed it out of there after the show.
It was tough to watch at the end. Trebek had to throw him mercy money just so he could play final jeopardy.
Blitzer has so much more to lose than some asshole like me. He’s supposed to be legitimate and stuff. But it’s interesting, it seems like a good portion of the winners at these celebrity Jeopardy games are comedians.The last one, I think it came down to Michael McKean against Cheech Marin and somebody else, another comedian.
Right, Jane Curtin. All comedians! It’s that random, fast access to tons of bullshit two-inches-deep knowledge, which is what comedians have a lot of. So you can make a quick hit joke about a topic and then move on before anybody realizes you don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about.
Is your trivia dominance the reason you were offered the gig to be the new Pyramid host?
I think it was helpful. The people involved in making game shows are very serious. They’re like (in a whispered, ominous voice) “Do you like to play games?” That’s not a flippant question to them. It’s like asking, “Do you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ?” And because I did well at Jeopardy, they felt like “He is one of us.” I had been offered other game shows before but they were always kinda niche and stupid, like real gimmicky, ephemeral type of stuff that I knew wouldn’t last. But then Pyramid came along, and its got a history to it.
You’re a fan of the genre?
There’s something fun about it. At a very basic level, I think television exists for game shows, and I think it always will. We’ll eventually get to the point where it’ll be like that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Running Man, and we’re killing people for sport on game shows.
What’s the status with Pyramid? First it was happening and then it wasn’t and then last year it was on again.
It’s long gone. The problem was, there was a morning slot at CBS that was either going to be Pyramid or this new thing called The Talk. And I’ll let you figure out why they went with The Talk.
Say no more.
It probably made somebody’s home life easier.
Maybe you’re sleeping with the wrong people.
You’re probably right. I should marry somebody who runs a network. Then all my career problems will be over.
Do you like games in general? Do you play with your kids? Chutes and Ladders, that kind of stuff?
Oh yeah, all the time.
Do you get super-competitive about it? Are you ever like “Booyah, how you like me now?!”
Never. As a father, I usually let them win.
Because it builds their self-confidence?
I’m just lazy. I don’t like dealing with the consequences. I have an 11 year old boy and six year old girl, and my son is a much better loser than my daughter. When we’re playing games, I usually let him win five times and then I’ll beat him once so it seems like I’m teaching him some sort of life lesson.
And that life lesson would be?
That you can’t win all the time. Or something, I don’t know. But with my daughter, she’s going to have such a rude awakening someday. She puts up such a fuss that I always let her win. So as far as she’s concerned, she wins all the time.
And that’s not a reflection on her true abilities?
Not at all. It’s just cause Daddy doesn’t want to hear it. Sometimes we don’t even finish. I’ll just stop mid-way through a game and say “Oh look, you won! You rolled a five, that means you won!”
How about games with adults? When you’re at a dinner party, are you the first one to suggest playing Celebrities?
No, I actually find that grating. Unless that’s the whole point of the party. There were these weird hangers-on in Hollywood who started making a business of doing game nights at celebrity homes. They’d be like, “Come over to Bob Villa’s house for a game night hosted by my company, Games A’Plenty!” I’ve been to some of those, and they can actually be fun, as long as you know what you’re getting into. But if it’s just a casual gathering of friends, and somebody says, “Hey, let’s play a game,” I’m never into it. I’m usually like, “How about if we just talk instead? How about that? Is that so terrifying?”
For some people it is.
Well have a glass of wine and relax. Let’s just talk and see what happens.
That’s easy for you to say. Talking is your business.
It is, yes. For better or worse.
When you first signed on as Conan’s sidekick, you lasted seven years before leaving to try your own thing. Now that you’re back with Conan, you’ve made it four years. How much longer do you think you’ll last this time? Another three years? Longer?
I don’t think that way anymore. In the old days, when I was younger, I would get antsy. I got to a point where I felt… (long pause) I felt like I could do more. You know what I mean? But when you’re out there doing your own thing, there’s so much you don’t have control over.
Everything I’ve heard about trying to make a sitcom in Hollywood sounds exhausting and humiliating.
It’s not fun. I’m happy not to be pitching ideas to people anymore, people who might not even be at the network in a month and when they get fired all of a sudden my project disappears. There’s just so much bullshit involved in that side of it.
So you’ve learned that being a talk show sidekick means a better quality of life?
I’m just happy to be in a place that I can wake up in the morning, help get my kids ready for school, be the family barista, drive my daughter to school, go to the gym, come to work, make television that gets seen that night, go home, have dinner with the family, bath time, a little TV, go to bed and that’s it.
That could be the secret to happiness.
It’s all I really want; to work in an environment with people I like and respect, and who like and respect me, and who frankly let me do whatever the hell I want to do. As long as it stays like this, I’m happy to be here. (Long pause.) At least until Conan’s cocaine addiction starts to really go crazy again, and then I’ll probably have to get out of here.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)