Short-lived American situation comedy
in 2002 on the Fox
Sometimes in television, there comes along a show that is so dramatic, so emotional, so moving that words alone can not describe its power!
This is not one of those shows?
--from Fox.com's "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" Web site.
Created by Victor Fresco, a seasoned veteran of sitcom writing and producing (Mad About You), the show entered the Fox lineup as a midseason replacement (6 episodes) in the Spring of 2002. Fairing moderately well, it was brought back in December 2002 for 8 more episodes. (Rumor has it only that new episodes were ordered only after network execs caught a look at Joss Whedon's Firefly. It also helped that The Grubbs, starring Randy Quaid was so bad, the show was cancelled two weeks before it even aired in its Fall 2002 slot). Despite critical acclaim, the show failed to find an audience, and Fox cancelled the show (with 5 episodes unaired).
In one sampling of television critics from across the United States, ARCTU found itself in the company of The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Osbournes of Best Series of the Year lists. HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm was the only situation comedy to appear on more lists. In 2002, the pilot was nominated for a Emmy for Best Writing in a Comedy Series (it would lose out to FOX's pilot of The Bernie Mac Show). Andy Richter was only one of two network comedies nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy by the Television Critics Association in 2003 (standing up against the BBC's The Office, and Comedy Central's The Daily Show).
The show was laugh out loud funny, whether it was focusing on imagined scenarios with co-workers:
Andy sits down next to his boss Jessica (who is peeved at him as his actions have landed both on them in sensitivity training): "Is that coffee? I didn't see coffee"
Jessica (throwing scaldingly hot coffee in Andy's face ): "Do you see it now?!!"
Andy (screaming in agony ): "Ooh, my eyes!"
Jessica: "Look who's sensitive all of a sudden."
or preying on the insecurities of its hero, Richter. Because of the Walter Mitty
-esque premise, in which we can see the fantasies of Richter's character, writers were free to spin out multiple gag
s for each premise: how Richter imagines things could turn out in a perfect world, Richter's nightmare visions of disasters, Richter's random non-sequitur
s, and Richter's actual reaction. Nothing new, but the ensemble cast pulled it off with ease. And the show was unapologetic in bringing to the screen the stupid, random, daydream
s that a man stuck in a boring meeting might imagine. Say what you will about Richter-- the show allowed him to expand far beyond his sidekick role from The Conan O'Brien Show
. That, and the supporting cast was laser sharp in their comic timing. Especially notable was Paget Brewster
, who played Jessica, Richter's boss, with a deadpan
timing that's the envy of any comedian, man or woman. Best Jessica lines:
"Oh yeah, I meant to erect a monument to that conversation, but I couldn't find a grade of marble boring enough"
"Well, I guess this is kinda my fault. Since I only told you exactly what would happen, instead of actually living your life for you"
With the possible exception of Jane Kaczmarek
of Malcolm in the Middle,
no other television actress was so willing to commit to her character, no matter how foolish she would end up looking.
Why was a show that never "jumped the shark" cancelled?
Ratings, pure and simple.
It's difficult for a "different" show to find an audience. Fox promoted the show by referencing the critics' postive reviews in its December promos. Fox aired ARCTU after Malcom in the Middle, an excellent sitcom in its own right, that show itself capturing the audience from The Simpsons. The Sunday night lineup had unusal strengths: smart writing, shows full of visual humor, shows without studio audiences or laugh tracks, that assumed their audiences were smart enough to get the jokes on their own. ARCTU should have fit.
But Malcom in the Middle, with its teenage protagonists, attracted the wrong demographics for ARCTU. 30% of the key audience of Malcolm didn't stick around for Andy Richter (that is, 30% of the 18-49 year old audience. Apparently most of the younger teens watching Malcom tuned out).
Fox also gave ARCTU a slot on Tuesdays, with the popular (but more traditional) That '70s Show as a lead in. It had an older audience, but 25% of viewers didn't stick around for the ARCTU. Still, that's 3 out of 4 viewers giving it a shot. But on a network that prided itself on overnight ratings superstars (American Idol, Joe Millionaire), shows that need time to find their audience don't fare well. So, like the highly-praised, little-seen Undeclared before it (ironically, replaced by ARCTU), ARCTU disappeared from the airwaves. (Meanwhile, over on NBC, the similar Scrubs, survived thanks to its time slot. Following Friends, it lost 20% of those viewers, but in an anemic sitcom season, that was better than many of its competitors.)
Andy Richter Controls the Universe Web site. <http://www.fox.com/andy/show/> (10 October 2003)
"Andy Richter Controls the Universe," Jump the Shark. <http://www.jumptheshark.com/a/andyrichter.htm> (10 October 2003)
Mark Berman. "The Programming Insider," 20 December 2002. <http://www.mediaweek.com/mediaweek/archive_search/search_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1782450> (10 October 2003)
David Bianculli. "A Solo Flight of Fancy: New Andy Richter Show a Dandy:" New York Daily News. 19 March 2002. pg. 79
George Fergus. "Andy Richter Controls the Universe Titles and Airdates Guide." <http://epguides.com/AndyRichterControlstheUniverse/> (10 October 2003)
Tim Goodman, "Network Honchos Need Reality Check, and Quickly." San Francisco Chronicle. 6 March 2003. <http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/03/06/DD245209.DTL> (10 October 2003)
Brian Hiatt. "The Andy Man." Entertainment Weekly. quoted at "Andy Richter Explains His New Show," <rec.arts.tv> 21 March 2002.
Robert Owen. "TV Review: Richter controls the funniest new sitcom." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 29 November 2002. <http://www.post-gazette.com/tv/20021129owen5.asp> (10 October 2003)
Claire Zulkey. "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." Flak Magazine. 23 April 2002. <http://flakmag.com/tv/andyrichter.html> (10 October 2003)
"...and Other Critics Lists." TV Barn. <http://www.tvbarn.com/archives/007828.html> (10 October 2003)