Not every show gets seven seasons and a satisfying feel-good send-off that ties up nearly every loose end. Parks and Recreation (which was the subject of another of our oral history projects) is unique, but it was also lucky that Michael Schur’s and Greg Daniels’ story about small-scale bureaucracy and small town characters had the chance to evolve and find an audience.
There’s no way of knowing if Conan O’Brien’s and Jonathan Groff’s Andy Barker, P.I. would have climbed as high as Parks and Recreation, had it not been cancelled after just six episodes, but it would have been nice if it got the chance.
Launched eight years ago next week, Andy Barker, P.I. told the story of a good-guy accountant (Andy Richter) who gets in over his head when he’s mistaken for a private eye. The show was smart, yet accessible, had ample heart, thanks to Richter’s every-man charm, an interesting cast of supporting characters (led by Tony Hale and the departed Harve Presnell), and a seemingly endless supply of hard-boiled detective story tropes to play with. What went wrong for the critically-lauded, but under-watched comedy? We spoke to Andy Richter, Tony Hale, Jonathan Groff, and some of the writers and producers to find out about the birth and death of a show that had everything going for it, save for timing and luck.
Getting The Band (Back) Together
In 2005 — five years after leaving “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” — Jonathan Groff returned to work with O’Brien on a new show that would expand from an initial bit of curiosity about the inhabitants of a Connecticut mall. Soon after, they would be joined by Andy Richter — another “Late Night” expatriate — and an experienced cast and crew.
Jonathan Groff (Co-Creator): I was head writer at Late Night with Conan O’Brien for five years — from September 1995 to September 2000 — and Conan and I really enjoyed working together; not just on bits for the shows but on things like his Harvard Commencement/Class Day speech in 2000. I had been in L.A. for a couple of years working on episodic shows and writing pilots, and he and I had stayed in touch. I remember talking to Conan’s producer, Jeff Ross, who said something like, “Conan has this company to make shows for NBC and if he ever were to actually write something rather than just be the producer, he’d want to do it with you.” Finally, in the summer of 2005, at the beginning of the development season for the 2006-2007 season, our schedules lined up. I went to New York a few times, and we kicked around a few ideas, but landed on this nugget of an idea that Conan had for a straight arrow earnest guy to go down the rabbit hole and end up in the private eye world.
Andy Richter (Producer/Andy Barker): Conan had the idea for the show, which was based on his curiosity about the offices that were above the shops in a mall in Connecticut that he frequented. He’d been sitting on the idea for a while, and when Jonathan became available to do it, they got together to flesh out and write the pilot. And apparently, very early in that process, they started to feel that I would be good for the lead.
Daniel Hsia (Writer): I landed on Andy Barker thanks to some spec scripts, recommendations from previous bosses I’d worked for, and one enormous piece of luck: Before I’d even heard of the show, I enrolled in a correspondence school to learn how to become a private investigator. You know those TV commercials aimed at unemployed high school dropouts? Enticing job titles scroll up the screen as a narrator asks: “Have you ever thought about a career in… Aircraft repair… Beautician… Private Investigator…” But my dream of becoming a comedy writer/private investigator was short lived, since one of the first things I learned is that in the state of California, you must have 10,000 hours of law enforcement experience to get a private investigator license. Nonetheless, I learned some practical things about the profession and when Andy Barker was picked up, I instructed my agent to tell whoever he could get on the phone about it. And it worked!