Andy Richter: Nice Guy, Private Eye

"Andy Barker, P.I." is a comedy, and Jonathan Groff knows that part pretty well.

Groff, who co-created the show with Conan O'Brien, is a former head writer for O'Brien's "Late Night" and has also worked on "Ed" and "Father of the Pride," so comedy writing is familiar territory. "Andy Barker," however, is also a detective show, and Groff wasn't quite so much at ease in combining the two elements.

"It was hard," Groff admits. "You do kind of have a good starting place with the conventions of the P.I. genre -- you have them as a shorthand with the audience that lets you get into things quickly, which is good. ... But then, yes, you [have to] give a satisfying little run through the story with enough of a twist so people aren't too ahead of it."

Groff readily admits that he's not going for "intricate, David Mamet-like, con game-type stories," and that's fine. Because "Andy Barker" is, after all, a half-hour comedy, and the main character (Andy Richter, O'Brien's ex-sidekick) isn't even really a detective. He's an accountant.

As the series opens at 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Andy has just opened his own accounting business in a strip mall -- in an office formerly occupied by private detective Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell, "Old School," "Fargo"). When his tax business gets off to a slow start, he reluctantly (though cheerily) takes on some clients who wander into his office looking for Lew.

He doesn't really know what he's doing, but with a supportive wife (Clea Lewis, "Ellen") and help from the manager of the mall's video store (Tony Hale, "Arrested Development"), who knows all the tricks of private eyes on film, he goes about solving the cases as perhaps the most polite private dick in TV history.

"I think what Andy Barker enjoys about it is he looks at it as -- both of them are altruistic pursuits in which he is utilizing his problem-solving skills to help other people," Richter says.

Or, as Groff puts it, "One way I think of talking about the character is his normalcy and his decency. If he's a hero, it's in being decent. He can't melt a toaster, but he can scold somebody for being impolite when they fire a gun at him."

And who better to play that sort of guy -- the sort of guy for whom "cheese and crackers" is a swear word -- than Richter?

"About five minutes into talking about this idea, we sort of said, 'Who would be perfect to play this character?'" Groff recalls. "And we said Leonardo DiCaprio, but Andy Richter would also be great.

"And then Conan almost instantly said we should call the guy Andy, not just because of the convenience of Andy Richter-Andy Barker ... but that it seems like a regular-guy kind of name."

Richter's luck with prime-time TV hasn't been the greatest. He starred in two short-lived FOX shows, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "Quintuplets," and NBC has thus far only committed six episodes of "Andy Barker" (and one of those will only be shown online). But if quality counts for anything, Richter thinks the new show might stand a chance.

"I badly want the show to go," he says. "I really feel like it's the best television work aside from the Conan show that I've ever done. The best prime-time work I've done by far."