by Carina Chocano

Andy Richter Controls the Universe is an absurdist office comedy about a doughy technical writer named Andy (Andy Richter) who works for a huge Chicago conglomerate called Pickering Industries. Andy spends most of his time at the office, which means he actually spends most of his time in his head, rescuing all the colorless moments that make up the better part of his life from the yawning pit of workaday meaninglessness.

His fantasy life is no less pedestrian that his regular life. If anything, it's almost more so. Most of Andy's thoughts -- which run along the lines of "And then, we were all replaced by a breed of genetically engineered superdogs," or "I wish I'd said that. I'm such a jerk. And I'm 30 pounds overweight" -- are heavily influenced by dumb movies and routine self-loathing. The result is absurdly hilarious.

If you ask me, Andy Richter Controls the Universe is the only office comedy ever that really gets office humor -- office humor being that giddy, loopy, unabashedly stupid humor that comes from a place of exhaustion, boredom and bottomless despair. Offices are rarely conveniently staffed with a Whitman's Sampler of dysfunctional personalities -- the narcissist, the bimbo, the buffoon. And even if they are, nobody stands around their workplace wittily putting each other down; they stand around their workplace with insincere smiles plastered across their faces dreaming up creative ways to smite each other.

In the season's first episode, Andy's boss Jessica (the marvelously deadpan Paget Brewster) tells him and his colleagues that the company is offering a finder's fee of $3,000 to anyone who helps recruit a nonwhite technical writer to the firm. "A few days later we met in Jessica's office to help a nonwhite person, who, traditionally, we wouldn't have cared about," Andy explains.

Andy's co-workers, Keith (James Patrick Stuart), Wendy (Irene Molloy) and Byron (Jonathan Slavin), each make the case for their candidate. "Ted has five years experience," Andy says, "and he's been black his whole life, which has not been easy in this racist society."

"Well," says Wendy, "my candidate is a woman from Saudi Arabia. She watched as her mother was stoned to death for driving a car -- a bumper car."

After listening to everybody's pitch, Jessica decides to go with Wendy's candidate over Byron's blind white guy and Keith's "gay, one-armed, Native American little person" who, unfortunately, is not a technical writer. Then she takes the opportunity to add, "Guys, I just want to say that race is a very uncomfortable subject, but only by talking about it like we've been doing, have we proven -- just how uncomfortable it really is."

Andy's candidate, Ted, winds up getting the job after the Saudi Arabian woman visits Saudi Arabia and is "stoned to death for having luggage with wheels," and Andy is free to fulfill his dream of buying a second TV for his bedroom.

The experience turns sour when Andy makes a few cracks about the Irish in front of Ted, who is black but proud of his Gaelic heritage. Ted complains to Jessica, who defends Andy against accusations of racism, then fails to see the problem when she realizes he wasn't talking about African-Americans. Soon they all wind up in sensitivity training., where a man standing at the front of the room greets them with the following: "Jews are cheap. Blacks are lazy. Asians can't drive. Puerto Ricans steal."

"Wow," Andy thinks. "It was a powerful way to get our attention. Pointing out all the horrible, hurtful, stupid stereotypes. This guy was good."

He does seem good, until another man walks in and says, "Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Mr. Stevens, your instructor." He turns to the man at the front of the room. "Who are you?"

"Hey, Duane Farley. My guinea boss told me I have to take this seminar."

Actually, it doesn't really matter much what happens. Andy Richter Controls the Universe understands how plot is secondary in sitcoms and takes full advantage of the loophole. The show could never be accused of being realistic, but it is oddly true to life. Nothing ever really happens in the big picture, but it's the awkward moments, the dark ironies and the little, imaginary things that keep life interesting.

And unlike most sitcoms, Andy Richter knows how to deliver a message in a way that doesn't make you want to spray the set with bullets. Here's one: "All I know is, I hate racists," the glum Byron tells Andy after he returns from sensitivity training feeling a little too sensitive about race. "I hate everything about them; their music, their food, their so-called religion. The way their men are so skinny and their wives are so fat. But mostly, I hate the way they judge people based on tired stereotypes."

Our Legacy: Our Voice, Our Action, Our Power

Thu., Sept. 24, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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