Now here’s something you won’t see on the TV menu every day: an occasionally film-noir comedy mystery that gently spoofed classic movies and used an accountant as its lead character. Yes, there was a show like that. For a little while, at least….
Andy Barker, P.I. aired (briefly) in the spring of 2007. It starred Andy Richter, the former sidekick and announcer for Conan O’Brien on Late Night, and later on The Tonight Show. And describing the show (including its evolution and eventual demise) is a bit like making a creative multi-course gourmet meal… and no one shows up for dinner.
But I’ll try anyway, because the meal (erm… show) turned out pretty well, even if nobody gave it a chance.
So, let’s start cooking… First, start with Richter’s character Andy Barker as an accountant. (A bit boring, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right?). Now add his wife, the sweet and kind Jenny Barker (Clea Lewis), who loves her mild-mannered, smart, but rather average teddy bear of a hubby. (OK, so perhaps we can whip up a gentle domestic comedy at this point).
Andy is starting his first day as his own boss, having rented a spot in a local strip-mall. Now he’s just waiting for the customers to flow in for information on 401K plans, tax shelters, and the like. Except, at least on the first day, nobody knows he’s there yet…. so he has no customers. (OK, so accountants really are boring… how can we spice this up? Let’s try something really unexpected….)
Suddenly, a beautiful woman with a Russian accent walks in, thinking that the place is still occupied by the previous tenant, who happened to be a Private Investigator. The mysterious Russian mistakes Andy for the former tenant and, after a bit of a sob story and a nice retainer, Andy Barker is contemplating no longer being just a CPA, but a P.I. as well. (And now is when things get a bit interesting, at least plot-wise. Maybe it’s a mystery show… AND a gentle comedy. There’s something to work with here, but it still needs more).
“You do kind of have a good starting place with the conventions of the P.I. genre, there’s a shorthand even with the audience, I think, that lets you get into things kind of quickly. Then satisfying the story with enough of a twist so that people aren’t too ahead of it. (…) I think we do try and be satisfying and respectful and not make it too outlandishly unbelievable.”
–Co-Creator Jonathan Groff
Andy has no experience in investigating things other than spreadsheets, so what to do? Fortunately, while he was waiting all day for customers, he’s made friends with the owners of two of the other stores in the mall, and these flavorful characters are more than happy to help.
Simon (Tony Hale) runs the “Video Riot” movie rental store, and knows every cliché and plot to every great and not-so-great mystery film (and loves the opportunity to play the part of investigator, instead of just watching on video). And Wally (Marshall Manesh) runs an Afghan restaurant (with an overly American theme, no less), which has been robbed so many times that he’s invested in the latest and greatest surveillance equipment available, just to monitor his eatery. So Andy now has some tools (and I’m referring to both the people AND the equipment there) to help him in his brand new investigating business. (And our “meal” now has some comedic counterpoints, and some ways to riff on Simon’s knowledge of old movie mysteries as well. More flavors added!).
Simon and Wally convince Andy to find the previous tenant, former P.I. Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell), for advice. It turns out that Lew’s retired (and just slightly crazy as well), but still has the P.I. business in his blood. And Andy has stirred those old feelings enough that Lew’s now on board as part of the team (a lunatic part, whether Andy wants him or not). And they’re off to solve a mystery, in every episode… with more than a few laughs along the way.
“Sometimes we do end up… getting into some conventional-type action sequences, but then having our comedic take on them, like a car chase where Andy is giving out accounting advice during the car chase. Or, Andy has a gun drawn on him and tries to bargain his way out of a situation by agreeing to sign a waiver of liability or nondisclosure agreement. It’s more like little snippets of things. The show is not intended to be a straight ahead spoof or parody.”
–Jonathan Groff, on balancing comedy and mystery without one overwhelming the other.
Andy Barker P.I. actually tried to be all those flavors in the same show: A gentle domestic comedy; a “fish-out-of-water” story of an accountant suddenly involved in a world he’s completely unaccustomed to; a light spoof (and sometimes homage) to some of the great film-noir mysteries of Hitchcock and Bogart; and an occasionally crazy and lunatic string of antics with Simon and Lew and some out-of-left-field situations with Wally. All in a half-hour time slot, in every episode. And the biggest mystery of all is that somehow, this strange combo-mixture worked rather well.
Like I said, a creative multi-course gourmet meal, with lots of new and different combinations of style and taste… and nobody came to dinner. Probably because NBC forgot to send out the invitations.
Andy Barker, P.I. premiered on Thursday nights, in the time slot vacated for a short “break” during the first season of the Tina Fey comedy 30 Rock. And even before the first Barker episode premiered, NBC then decided that 30 Rock‘s “break” would be shortened by a week, and that the fifth episode of Andy Barker P.I. would be an “online exclusive”. (The fifth episode happens to center around Lew’s past and his old partner, guest star Ed Asner, and rumor has it that the network bean counters were worried that the episode had “too many geezers” and wouldn’t attract that valuable younger audience they were so desperate for.)
In other words, the network had little faith in the show before it even aired and, other than a bit of promotion before the premiere, there was almost no mention of the show for publicity purposes, at least not by the network itself. The first four of the six episodes aired on consecutive Thursday nights, with the last two being shown back-to-back AND buried on a Saturday night just over a week later. And for those who were at all technically savvy, the ENTIRE series was actually posted online at the NBC site BEFORE the premiere… which means, if you were interested at all in the show, you could watch it there (or buy the episodes on iTunes), and never actually HAVE to see the episodes as they aired, lowering the ratings even further. Andy Richter himself put it a bit more bluntly:
“They apparently decided at some point that, ‘this show is not going to be a big breakout, runaway hit, so let’s just kind of cut our losses and put it on, and if magic happens, then great, we’ll get behind it. But we’re not going to get behind it before. We’re not going to really get behind it before and push. We’re going to put it on.’ It’s basically like a friend of mine once referred to it — they shove you out on an ice float and push you out into the water and go, ‘All right now, thrive!'”
–Andy Richter, on NBC’s apparent attitude towards the series.
(Actually, I’ve found some much more “colorful” quotes by Richter on this subject, but while I’m not averse to using that language occasionally in these articles, this quote still gets the message across. The show got stabbed in the back, figuratively, and Richter knows it.)
What show at the time DID get a lot of NBC’s promotion and money? The Real Wedding Crashers, a short-lived “staged reality” series about people pulling stunts during weddings (with the bride and the groom in on the joke, but not the invited guests). Yeah, THERE’S a show to get behind… just to get a running start at kicking it off a cliff….
To be fair though, during 2006-2007, NBC wasn’t attracting many more customers than Andy Barker did on his first day in the strip-mall (they’d put their promotion machine behind Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip earlier that year, and I’ve already written about what happened there). In fact, this is the THIRD article I’ve written about shows NBC aired that season (The Black Donnellys being the other). But then, the question must be asked: with such a variety of ingredients, how would you have promoted Andy Barker P.I. in the first place?
Again, we’ve made a great meal… but the network would’ve preferred McDonalds, because at least they knew what to do to promote the same old Combo #1 comedy or Combo #2 drama, and not the delights of the unique feast being served up here. And for 30-second snippets in commercials, it’s easier to promote a straight comedy or true drama than to promote the subtle mix of genres, styles, and performances that made Andy Barker, P.I. so well worth watching.
Ultimately, sometimes television at its best is also the hardest thing for television itself to promote and sell. Appreciating what makes some shows great is only apparent in the context of the show itself, much like the greatest food is complimented significantly by the wine or the ambiance of the restaurant. And, like some great restaurants, this show opened and closed before most people even knew it was there….
ANDY RICHTER (Andy Barker) is best known as the sidekick (and co-writer) on the Conan O’Brien’s stints of Late Night and The Tonight Show (and Conan returned the effort by being one of the creators of Andy Barker P.I.) His two other short-lived shows were the critically acclaimed Andy Richter Controls the Universe and the not-so-acclaimed Quintuplets. He also holds the record for winning the most money on Celebrity Jeopardy, over $29,000 for charity.
CLEA LEWIS (Jenny Barker) was a regular on Ellen (starring Ellen DeGeneres), playing friend Audrey. Her quirky voice has also lended itself to voice-over and animation work, including Pepper Ann and various characters on SpongeBob SquarePants, and a role in the two sequel movies in the animated Ice Age movie trilogy.
TONY HALE (Simon) is a specialist at playing oddball characters and is best known for his role as “Buster” on Arrested Development. His other major role has been as Emmett on Chuck, and is now on the web series Ctrl on the NBC network website.
MARSHALL MANESH (Wally) has played recurring characters in numerous shows, including Will and Grace, Scrubs, and How I Met Your Mother. He has also guested on JAG, Boston Legal, and Burn Notice, among many other series.
HARVE PRESNELL (Lew Staziak) first appeared on TV on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1956, but really had three separate careers. First as a musical stage actor, he starred on Broadway in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and performing for many years in touring productions of Camelot and Annie Get Your Gun, returning to Broadway as Daddy Warbucks in Annie. His film career includes the movies Fargo and Saving Private Ryan. In his later years, he became a TV character actor in demand, guesting on The Pretender, Monk, and ER. He passed away of pancreatic cancer in June 2009.
Surprisingly for a six-episode show, Andy Barker P.I. is available on DVD (especially if you want extras), but if you just wish to sample the series for yourself, all six episodes are also available for free streaming on Hulu. NBC’s main website for the show still exists, although not all the links on it are still active.
If you’ll allow me one more riff on the “food” analogy, here’s another thing: Just as restaurants’ meals get reviewed by critics, so do television series. Strangely enough, the TV critics almost universally endorsed the show. One of the few TV critics that I actually respect, Tom Shales of the Washington Post, had this to say in his review:
“Andy Barker P.I. sails along on an admirably even keel, brightened by moments that are convulsively funny — visual gags and subtler forms of slapstick. It’s the kind of comedy that sneaks up on you. Sneaks up on you and threatens to steal your heart.”
Wait…. Threats? Maybe even a stolen heart? Sounds like a mystery to me. Or maybe he can just use the loss as a tax write-off. Either way, I know just the guy who can help, and have a laugh or two along the way. Just call Andy Barker, P.I.
Six aired episodes — no unaired episodes exist
First aired episode: March 15, 2007
Final aired episode: April 14, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No, four episodes aired Thursdays at 9:30/8:30 Central, up against two Top Ten shows (CSI and Grey’s Anatomy), and the final two episodes burned off in NBC’s “Saturday repeats” slot.