The first thing that watching new episodes of Fox's finally returning Andy Richter Controls the Universe does is confirm how utterly lame 98 percent of all other network sitcoms are. The next thing watching them does is make you laugh really hard. Or maybe it's the other way around. In either case, in its sophomore season, ''Andy Richter'' has become its own perfectly realized comic universe. During its debut run, ''Richter'' was funny but hit-or-miss, trying out different tones. Now, this absurdist office comedy has wisely decided to laser- focus on its core cast. There's Andy, of course, a hapless drone prone to daydreams a Dadaist would be proud of (in the second episode, for example, we're shown Andy's mental list of career goals, which includes becoming a spy, Val Kilmer, and ''King of the Penguins''). Richter is a roly-poly anarchist who no longer needs to be ID'd as Conan O'Brien's former sidekick. Working with show creator Victor Fresco, he has made his character unique: both wily and idiotic -- try pulling off that combo, Mr. Kilmer! (Oh, wait; I forgot you were Jim Morrison in ''The Doors''... er, try that, Mr. King of the Penguins!)
In the new ''Universe,'' plots are delightfully flimsy excuses for clever sight gags and wordplay. The premiere parodied political correctness in office hirings and scored a few points about race relations (Andy offends a new black employee not because of a racist gaffe, but because he ridicules Riverdance and shamrocks without realizing the African American is also an Irish American). But its best humor came from sillier ideas, such as having receptionist Wendy (Irene Molloy) take a newly marketed antihistamine for a sinus condition, which lowers her voice to a register resembling that of a scarily intimidating man -- or, as Wendy says, Demi Moore.
In episode two, Andy gets queasy while taking care of his office pal Byron (Jonathan Slavin), who has a nasty burn on his back; our hero also sets up his unlucky-in-love boss, Jessica (Paget Brewster), with a handsome guy who turns out to have an identical twin -- they ''trade off'' on dating her. (''They'' are played by Dan Cortese, whom the writers use well for his robotic studliness.) Andy soon begs off on dressing Byron's burn, and Byron gets a prostitute to tend to the sore because she's cheaper than a private nurse. This leads to the following exchange between Wendy and her coworker boyfriend, Keith (James Patrick Stuart):
Wendy: ''Byron hired a prostitute to clean his wound.''
Keith: ''That is the worst euphemism for sex I've ever heard.''
The cast is fully up to such curt byplay. On another show, Molloy and Stuart might have been deployed as mere vacuous Good Lookers, and ridiculed as such. Instead, Fresco and Richter invite them to be as deadpan foolish as the rest of the players. Similarly, Slavin's Byron has evolved into a morose limp noodle whose whining voice is not grating, but rather an instrument of eloquent timing.
A separate paragraph must be reserved for Paget Brewster, who possesses a rare gift: She's an impeccable, generous straight woman, setting up others' punchlines. But she's also able to transform herself into an outrageous mirth generator. I'm thinking particularly of the moment when, in a startling Andy fantasy sequence in the premiere, Jessica, bitter at having to attend a sensitivity-training session with her coworker, throws a cup of hot coffee in his face. As Andy screams in agony, she snaps, ''Look who's sensitive all of a sudden.'' All this, plus Brewster, in the midst of a crazy show, manages to be one of TV's more believable bosses, with her no-nonsense manner, her prim suits, and her lacquered hair, which is frequently upswept into a vertiginous cone that must be tricky to wear without either cracking up or tipping over.
As Andy says of her, ''You're not like the other girls.'' Granted, it is just after Jessica has admitted that she likes dating the twins, because one is fascinatingly articulate while the other is exhaustingly good in bed, and thus she refers to them as ''Talky'' and ''Humpy.'' But Andy's comment is also an accurate assessment of Brewster herself. Long may she, Richter, and the rest of the gang rule their ''Universe.''