Boy, lots of talented people are certainly knocking themselves out trying to revitalize the sitcom genre, but on Andy Richter Controls the Universe Conan O’Brien’s former sidekick is as devilishly funny as he was with Conan. His impish smile and twinkly eyes only enhance his comic persona, that of a sweetly devious horndog. Besides, as he proved even in the notorious 1994 box office flop ”Cabin Boy,” Richter has made smart smirkiness a minor art form: He’s one ex-sidekick who can act. (There’s a reason why there was never a show called ”Ed McMahon Controls the Universe.”) Here, Andy (he uses his own name) pens manuals for industrial products – an intentionally vague, corporate-drone job that affords him the time to engage in comic daydreams, many of them involving the cute receptionist he has a crush on, Wendy (Irene Molloy, who was great on last season’s appallingly ignored ”Grosse Pointe”). The gimmick of fantasies contrasting sharply with what really happens got old back when HBO’s ”Dream On” was doing it. What occasionally redeems the device here are the piquant visual surrealisms: Andy wearing a trench coat festooned with live puppies to prove he’s a ”nice guy”; Andy as Superman, squeezing a lump of coal into a gleaming diamond to impress Wendy. Andy controls his universe by imagining ideal solutions, but then cedes that control by muddling through, like you and me.
The show takes standard sitcom plots and gives them a good yank. There’s the ancient one about our hero meeting with his old high school crush, which usually leads to disappointment because the former flame either (a) has aged badly or (b) is too gorgeous to pay attention to the lowly shlub-protagonist. But in ”Universe,” the woman, Leslie (Jessica Collins), proves to be a stunner who actually likes Andy; they begin dating. The smitten Andy loves everything about Leslie; he even thinks her sneezes are cute (”It’s like a cartoon squirrel!” he gushes). But then the girl of his dreams makes frighteningly casual anti-Semitic remarks, and our Andy must decide whether he wants a ”hate-spouting hottie” or a return to lonely singleton life. It’s an echo of an old Seinfeld, but masterfully worked out.
There are slow moments in ”Universe,” and some of the poor-taste jokes aren’t funny enough (a grief counselor who kills herself? That’s the sort of cheap irony ”Six Feet Under” rendered mild a season ago). But Andy is dandy, and special kudos to the marvelously game Paget Brewster, finally getting to show her range after the lousy sitcom ”The Trouble With Normal” and a memorable but too-brief stint as a Joey girlfriend on ”Friends.” Richter may not end up controlling the universe, or even a time slot packed with ”Gilmore Girls,” ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and ”Watching Ellie,” but he deserves to draw an audience big enough to keep his fantasies alive.