He spent seven years being a second banana on Late Night With Conan O'Brien before striking out on his own, so Andy Richter knows a thing or two about what makes a good sidekick. "You've got to know the parameters of your role," explains Richter. "You have to know that you're second and take that supporting role, and also know you're a valuable player." He cites a piece by NPR correspondent Sarah Vowell on Ed McMahon as an example. "She pointed out the first line of Ed's autobiography was something like, 'I first met Johnny Carson….' This was the first line of the story of his life," Richter muses. "I think Ed believed in being No. 2 a bit too much."
Richter also spent time working with David Letterman player Chris Elliott in the film Cabin Boy, though he maintains their styles are very different. "There's more sort of anger and weird hostility with him," he says with a laugh. "I kind of had to be myself—or that presentable there's-company-coming-for-dinner version of myself, whereas I don't think he's ever been real. He's a joker; he's pretty relentless. When I did Cabin Boy, I first realized he liked me when he started being really, really mean to me and saying awful things in front of rooms of other people."
After leaving Conan's couch in 2000, Richter went on to appear in films such as Elf and Scary Movie 2 and headline two TV series—Andy Richter Controls the Universe and the just-cancelled Quintuplets. Next up is Dreamworks' animated Madagascar, in which Richter continues scene-stealing as the voice of Mort, a loveable lemur. Back Stage West asked Richter to name his top five favorite sidekicks:
Bruce Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet: "He was 10 times more interesting than the Green Hornet—that's always a sidekick's job, to show up his master."
Kelly Ripa on Live With Regis and Kelly: "I don't know if she counts as a sidekick, but I love her. The daytime-television world is so incredibly full of shit that it's so nice to have somebody just real. On a daytime talk show you still have to keep it light and glib, but she says some dark, hilarious things. Once she said, 'Kids are like pancakes, you're going to ruin the first one anyway, so don't worry about it.' You're not going to hear Kathie Lee saying that. I've co-hosted there a few times, and it's because I love her so much. The first time I showed up, she and [producer Michael] Gelman said, 'So, what have you got?' I said, 'What have I got? I'm the guest here!' She said, 'Well, you have to understand, Regis talks and I react.' I said, 'Well, that's what I do, so you're in trouble.'"
W. Earl Brown as Dan Dority on Deadwood: "He plays Ian McShane's right-hand man and is great. There's an unquestioning devotion, and he has completely subverted himself to this guy. It's one of those great things where at first it seems like a sick world and a sick relationship, but there's definitely a family and support structure there. These are lost people that have found each other and found a way to work within the world they were born in."
Steve Van Zandt as Silvio Dante and Tony Sirico as Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri on The Sopranos: "You couldn't build a show around Silvio or Paulie Walnuts, but there's just enough to be perfect. They're kind of the spicy condiment that helps things out."