Sidekick no more

Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter was the biggest star on "Late Night." So what took him so long to leave?

By Sarah Vowell
Published September 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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What could be more curious than being Conan O'Brien's sidekick? Conan O'Brien himself seems like he should be somebody else's sidekick. O'Brien -- and this is his charm -- isn't really leading man material. He's too humble, too self-deprecating, too kind. Unlike Jay Leno, who is unwaveringly weird, or David Letterman, whose brilliance is proportional to his own self-loathing, or the old-fashioned Tom Snyder, or his smarmy frat boy replacement, Craig Kilborn, or even no-nonsense smooth Ted Koppel, Conan O'Brien walks this earth with the rest of us. And the best part of his show is always the bit between the monologue and the first guest when he shoots the breeze with sidekick Andy Richter.

One of the most reliably blissful seconds of national TV happens every weeknight between 12:35 and 12:36 a.m. That is the brief second during the drums-and-trumpet fanfare of the credits of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" when the camera settles on Richter. Richter, who usually curtsies, or makes a face, or laughs or does a little dance, broadcasts a huge and hilarious presence just by being. His job does not seem to hold him, does not seem quite right. Which is obviously why Richter has announced he's quitting "Late Night" at the end of this television season, and why the show has shrewdly announced that there are no plans to seek his replacement -- implying that he cannot be replaced.


He can't. For Andy Richter is perhaps the first sidekick in talk show history whom it is a pure pleasure to watch. Maybe because he's somehow managed to surpass the pathos that is sidekickery. I am thinking specifically of the Hank Kingsley character from "The Larry Sanders Show." Played by Jeffrey Tambor, Hank, host Larry's sidekick on a fictionalized TV talk show, was pathetic, egomaniacal, deluded, mean and heartbreaking nonetheless. Forced to play -- and be -- second fiddle to another pathetic, deluded, heartbreaking egomaniac, Hank was forever the butt of the joke -- investing in a failing restaurant, holing up with hookers and making unsuccessful bids to strike out on his own by courting commercial endorsements for defective products such as exercise equipment that caused back injuries. He wasn't a laugh, he was a laughingstock.

Conan and Andy have settled in. Remember the first couple of seasons of the show, when Conan was so nervous and so green that watching this show before bed would keep you up at night, just from the sheer jitters of watching this guy you feel for flounder and flub? Because you were rooting for him like he was some little kid at a piano recital who was on the verge of tears for messing up his Mozart. No longer. There is something very real and relatively relaxed about Conan now.

The other night, Conan and Andy were in the middle of their recurring bit "If They Mated," in which the theoretical progeny of romantically linked celebrities is pictured through garish photographic montages. Conan, for some reason, reached into the air to touch the title graphics, telling Andy, "Someday, I'm going to catch me a logo." "Oh! You'll do it!" Andy replies. The words are classic sidekick dialogue -- beefing up the host. But Richter's genius is that he plays into it, plays with it, deconstructs the sidekick role. Just as O'Brien is wearing a classic Johnny Carson suit and is backed by a Johnny Carson big band while conveying a subversive sensibility that is informed by rock 'n' roll, Andy Richter looks like an Ed McMahon sidekick without actually being one.


If I were Andy Richter, Ed McMahon's autobiography of last year, "For Laughing Out Loud," would have scared me silly. (If you are on an airplane and you would like to pique your row's interest, just bring along a copy of the McMahon book -- and underline.) McMahon is the Foucault of sidekick theory, and if this isn't one of the best memoirs I've ever read, it's one of the saddest. Starting with its first sentence: "I will never forget the very first time I met a young man named Johnny Carson." The first sentence! Of his autobiography! If ever there were a sentence that should be about him and not the man who eclipsed him for 30 years, it is the beginning of his own autobiography. McMahon, who hosted his own television and radio shows for years before becoming Carson's foil, writes, "I understood that my job was to support Johnny Carson. I didn't tell the jokes, I set up the jokes. I didn't get the laughs, I helped him get the laughs ... At times I had to consciously stop myself from responding to something he said; I'd always had my own shows, I'd always been free to say whatever popped into my mind. But after a few weeks I had slipped quite comfortably into the role of straight man, his second banana."

It is understandable why Andy Richter is quitting "Late Night": Not because of the first half of the show, in which he is a vital participant, but because of the second half, when he has to sit in a chair on the set, McMahon-like, and not say a word. It's a waste. Though he's rarely on-screen as O'Brien does the interviews, I often entertain myself through the endless succession of interviewees with nothing to say wondering, What's Andy thinking? Why isn't Conan just talking to Andy? Andy's more interesting than this (fill in name of supermodel, athlete, movie star here).

These what-about-Andy questions point to a fundamental fact of the sidekick job: It is not modern. The host-sidekick relationship is practically feudal. It is hierarchical and therefore flawed. The modern paradigms are loner hero or group effort -- individuals or the masses. The sidekick is an outcast. Neither part of a group nor out on his own, not audience nor star, the sidekick lives in a lonely no man's land, his chair so near and yet so far from the action. I'm surprised it took Andy Richter, who is both everyman and a singular star, so long to leave.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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