Doomed From The Start: An Oral History Of The Birth, Charming Life, And Fast Death Of ‘Andy Barker, P.I.’

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

2 Groff and Richter
Getty Image

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!

Tony Hale (Simon): Arrested Development had just finished and this opportunity had come up. I was a big fan of Andy Richter’s and also Jonathan Groff’s. I liked them as people, and I liked that collaboration a lot. I was really excited just to work with that team.

Jane Espenson (Supervising Producer): I was under an “overall deal” at Universal at the time, as were most of the writers, which means that we tended to be, on average, pretty experienced writers, high enough up to have a deal of this kind. So, the show had a very experienced staff.

The Story And The Storytellers

With O’Brien’s input from New York and an assembled team of writers and producers who had previously worked on “Will and Grace,” “Spin City,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Arrested Development,” and “Late Night,” Groff had assembled something of an all-star creative team. He also had a “clever gimmick.”

Hsia: [Conan] was still doing Late Night in New York while we were writing and filming in L.A., but he came to town and sat with us through a long, hot Saturday to hear the story pitches and riff on ideas. Then he gave us the thumbs up and let us do our work.

Josh Bycel (Consulting Producer): When Conan was there, it was like you were in Comedy University. The way he worked with Andy and the way they worked together. The way they pitched jokes and stories. That was the highlight for me of the whole thing.

Groff: I loved working with Conan, even though he was still in New York and could only be involved in the series from afar. His insights and instincts were amazing, and he’s so funny. He has a line of dialog in the pilot, when Andy is asking Simon about Lew Staziak (a retired P.I. character). Simon says, “I remember Lew. Kind of a hothead. I once saw him throw a can of peaches at a dog.” I remember Conan lying on the floor of an office at Universal when we were punching up the pilot and he came up with that joke.

Richter: It had a clever gimmick — accountant moves into new office previously occupied by a P.I., accountancy business is slow, so he starts doing P.I. work based on clients mistaking him for the previous tenant — that offered lots of fish-out-of-water possibilities. In my experience, the best ideas are the ones that allow you to explore classic concepts and themes inside a structure that is cleverly constructed; a structure that has the appearance of newness.

Groff: Several things made it fun to write and produce, and to watch, too. I loved the private eye world and the access we had to those kinds of stories, with the opportunity to make a detective case the backbone of your story, and then just fill in the character moments and find the jokes.

Chuck Tatham (Co-Executive Producer): I remember enjoying shooting downtown, in really seedy locations, instead of crappy sound stages. It gave the show a nice, authentic look, I think.

Groff: I loved the work of our series director Jason Ensler, who embraced the cinematic nature of the project and handled so much action with great style and provided a deep reservoir of noir/crime/detective/cop show and movie references.

Espenson: The titles of the episodes were plays on classic noir titles. The episode that I wrote started with a death on a golf course and I was thrilled to realize that “Fairway My Lovely” would be the perfect title. I also came up with “The Lady Varnishes” for the episode in which Amy Sedaris played the woman with the wooden leg. I consider those two titles my best contribution to the show.

Groff: I had access to some great writers to help me with the series: Chuck Tatham, Jon Pollack, Gail Lerner, Alex Herschlag, Jon Ross, Jane Espenson, Josh Bycel. It was sad that it was such a short order, but it was a real chance to do the series the way a lot of high quality British shows are done, in small batches with great quality control. We wrote everything ahead of time, over the summer, and then block shot it like a movie (shot pieces of all five new episodes plus the pilot re-shoots over a period of six weeks, using great locations that we would not have been able to go to in a regular series with a larger order). Jason Ensler was able to direct all the episodes, so there was a stylistic and tonal uniformity. He did brilliant work. And I was able to be on set for every second of shooting, to rewrite and tweak and make it make it better. That almost never happens on a regular order for a series, except for the pilot and the season finale.

Bycel: Most staffs take a while to come together; it’s really a team, and it takes awhile to come together as a team. And it takes a while to figure out what the show is, but this one was immediate. Everybody loved the show and loved the idea of what the show could be. Everybody was so experienced and so good and they had really clear voices. The key was, everybody was sure of themselves. There wasn’t anybody on that staff that was trying to figure out who they were or what kind of writer they were. Everybody knew. It was incredibly collaborative. Andy was in the room a lot, Conan would come in. Everybody had a say on that show. It was easy to work on that show because we knew what it was.

Espenson: They [the writers] were all at the level to be running their own shows.

Hale: It was a really well-written show. I think the only thing that I can describe it as, is that what actors love the most is the element of surprise. Something that doesn’t really fit into a mold. Arrested was that way and Andy Barker was that way. You never knew which direction it was going to go. Like for instance, I remember that chicken episode [“Three Days of the Chicken”], and it was such a quirky random story and you could never gauge which direction it went. That’s what made it fun. When writers bring that much [of a] surprise into the material, you know that they’re constantly thinking outside the box, and they’re not trying to fit into a certain formula. I always appreciated that.

Surrounding Andy Barker With The Right Cast

Andy Richter was the near immediate choice to play Andy Barker, a “decent” and somewhat boring man who was constantly flirting with disaster, thanks to his growing love for the P.I. game. As a novice, Barker needed a bit of guidance, a bit of support at home and at work, and the constant presence of an eager sidekick. With the now-departed Harve Presnell (retired P.I. Lew Staziak), Marshall Manesh (Wally), and Tony Hale (Simon from the video store) on-board, “Andy Barker, P.I.” had half of its team in place. Clea Lewis (Andy’s wife, Jenny) and Nicole Randall Johnson (Nicole) would come later, replacing Amy Farrington and Ion Overman, who had initially been cast.

Groff: Conan and I landed on Andy as the guy for this part about 15 minutes into talking about the concept. We kind of almost said, “Andy Richter” in unison. In fact, I think we did, and I think Conan still owes me a beer. Andy just brings that sense of solid American competence and Midwestern decency (although he has a really dark sense of humor and I think is tired of the Midwestern nice guy label). He’s also a wonderful actor, pitches great jokes as a writer, and is physically imposing so it was great to see him as Andy Barker actually use that to stare somebody down or intimidate them when they had pushed him too far. I think we would have done more of that “unlikely action hero” stuff as we went on, though Andy said his knees were hurting after six weeks of running through “chicken factories” and hotel hallways in dress shoes.

Richter: There was no specific inspiration for the character. I just sort of saw him as an almost tragically moral and upright person, somebody woefully unequipped for the rougher side of life. Sort of a grown-up Richie Cunningham, maybe. But I think that most goody-two-shoes get a little bored, so the P.I. world that he stumbled into presented him with a kind of excitement that he didn’t even know he was missing.

Groff: That solid, decent, can-do, positive attitude of Andy Barker’s was something Conan had seen in one of his writers (Dan Goor, who went on to co-create Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and he thought it would be an interesting basis for a character.

Bycel: I just think that the three of them [Simon, Lew, and Andy] together, or when Andy was with one of them, those scenes just shined. Because Andy has this unique ability to play off of other people at all times, he doesn’t need to have the spotlight in the moment, and yet he can still be funny. And I think that just made Harve [Presnell] and Tony even funnier.

Groff: I loved our cast. Andy is a really good actor and a great lead guy to build a show around with a character like this. Harve Presnell, Tony Hale, Clea Lewis and Marshall Manesh… each wonderfully funny and specific, they brought the characters to life in ways beyond our wildest dreams.

Richter: Casting can be as important as writing, and in some cases more so, when it comes to the artistic success of a show. And because it’s so hard to assemble an engine in which every piston is perfect, squandering this amazing cast was one of the most tragic things about the premature ending of this show.

Groff: I had cast a pilot the year before and had met Harve and thought he was great, though he wasn’t right for that. So, while I didn’t have him in mind when I wrote the pilot, when I saw his name on the potential “Lew” list, I got excited. Harve was so incredible. Fascinating guy; scion of a rich California family, was trained as an opera singer, flew his own jet, lived on a ranch in Montana and bragged about shooting rock salt at bears that came on to his property. 6-foot-4, iron grip handshake, totally intimidating, kind of a hard right-winger (“to the right of Attila the Hun” in his words), but a great guy. And he had such an interesting career. I believe he was on the original recording by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony of Carmina Burana, had been in a bunch of big movies in the 50s and 60s, went into the family business for a while, reinvented himself by touring forever as Daddy Warbucks in Annie, and then was “rediscovered” by the Coen brothers for his unforgettable role in Fargo. He was so game and up for anything, and able to handle giant chunks of hard-boiled noir-ish gumshoe-style dialog, which is the kind of thing that is not always easy for older actors.

Richter: Harve was perfect, and one of the best things that I take away from making this show was getting to know him. He was like Lew in so many ways, but also unlike him in even more wonderful ways. I am always so heartened when I meet an older artist who still has a younger person’s curiosity and energy about them, and that was definitely Harve.

Bycel: Tony Hale is just a genius, we see it now obviously with Veep and all that stuff. He made anything funny. He was the best. They all were… but with him and Harve, it was just easy to make things funny for them. But Tony’s character was great because he was a nerd and he was a movie lover and I think we all had that in us, so it was easy to write him.

Hale: I loved the whole idea of people who had no clue what they were doing just being thrown into solving crimes. And this guy [his character, Simon], he owned the video store, he loved music, and he really kind of wanted to jump into whatever adventure he could find because he was so tired of his job. I also liked the idea that, because of his film knowledge, he used that to solve the crimes. I loved that angle. He was just happy to be there. Happy to be on an adventure. I loved those two misfits trying to do the job.

Groff: We had read a bunch of people for Simon, and I had in my head a little bit more of a snarky/slackery kind of character, like Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity. It was Andy who turned to me after we got Tony to come in and read, and said, “We have to cast him, there’s no one funnier.” David Kissinger [president of Conan’s production company and a producer on the project] and I agreed, immediately, even though he wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Plus, Andy and Tony at that point had worked together on Arrested, I believe, so there was a bit of a connection there.

Hale: I love that Simon absolutely loved her [Nicole, a file clerk who later became Andy’s secretary], and I loved the fact that she didn’t want anything to do with him, but he kept thinking, “There’s a light here. There’s something here.” He would sing to her and be so obnoxious, but I guess in his mind, he was like, “Nope, this is gonna happen. She’s gonna turn a corner and really like me” and she never gave him the time of day. I would hope that that would have continued.

Groff: We would have wanted to do more with Nicole and Simon, but Nicole Randall Johnson [the actress who played Nicole] was under contract to Fox’s MADtv, so it would have been tricky. But she was so funny and they were great together.

Espenson: Tom Lenk (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was almost cast in the show, but the role was re-imagined and eventually morphed into the one played by Nicole Randall Johnson.

Groff: Clea Lewis was not originally cast as Jenny. We had loved her in the audition process, but the network thought maybe we needed a more formidable, no-nonsense wife to “ground” Andy as he went on these adventures. What we realized in the pilot was that Andy grounds Andy, and that his wife could be a little bit daffier and more comic and be a part of everything he’s surrounded himself with. So, NBC let us go back to cast Clea, and we re-shot those pilot scenes, and she was perfect.

Espenson: Amy Sedaris is the guest I remember the most clearly. I’m a huge fan. We created that character with her in mind, but that happens all the time and you rarely get the person you’re dreaming of, so it was amazing to actually get her. She was great in the piece, of course, and off screen she sat doing crafts – working some kind of rug, I believe, with tremendous focus. She’s someone I’d love to work with again. My partner Brad Bell and I talked with her once about a role on our show Husbands, but she had a conflict. I’d love for us to go back to her, because she’s really extraordinary.

Richter: I’m sure Rita would have come back. Amy’s too good and too much fun to not reprise her role.

Groff: Amy lives in New York and is kind of picky about what she does, so it was really only because she’s a pal of Andy’s that she came out to do our show. But she was so terrific and I think had a great time — we let her keep her wooden leg — so maybe we could have brought her back.

Hsia: We did an episode where Lew goes up against his old nemesis — a corrupt cop named Mickey Doyle (played by the legendary Ed Asner). Ed was a big “get” for us, casting-wise, but apparently he’d been told that he was playing Lew and had learned all the lines for the wrong character! Nobody knew this until he showed up on set that morning. But Ed is a consummate professional, he didn’t panic and learned all of Mickey’s lines that same day. Jonathan told us not to speak of this in front of Ed, but I think the statue of limitations has expired on that.

Doomed From The Start

Though O’Brien was, at the time, NBC’s late night king-in-waiting, thanks to a contract extension that had guaranteed him “The Tonight Show” before the end of the decade, his pull at the network only went so far once the egos of executives got involved. A reality that didn’t bode well for the long-term prospects of the series.

Groff: It would absolutely not have gotten ordered to series without the clout Conan had.

Richter: It was cancelled before it was picked up. We made the pilot, but then when they ordered the new fall slate of shows, we apparently just missed the cut. I was informed of this on a Wednesday, and was pretty upset. Two days later I flew to Chicago, where Conan and the Late Night show had been taping all week. I was slated as a sort of surprise guest, mainly because Chicago’s my hometown. Upon arriving at the theater, Conan and Jeff Ross pulled me aside and let me know that the network had changed their minds; that they decided to go ahead and make a few episodes. I was thrilled, as were Conan and Jeff.

From what I understand, the head of programming at the time had decided not to pick up the show. But the next day the Los Angeles NBC people and the New York NBC people (generally, the L.A. people are the primetime programming people, the N.Y. are the sports, news, and corporate people) got together to present the new lineup to Jeff Immelt of GE, the ultimate boss of everybody. At the end of the meeting, Immelt asked, “Is there anything else?” and someone from the New York group said, “Well, we have a pilot that Conan O’Brien created, and since he’s going to be hosting The Tonight Show, maybe it would be a good idea to keep him happy and make a few episodes of the show that came out of his brain?” And Immelt said okay, take a few extra million dollars and let’s see how it goes. Apparently, this was something of an end-run around the L.A. people, and possibly doomed us from the start.

Groff: I remember Andy saying to me, “Ah, if it’s only six episodes, that’s stupid, why bother?” and me agreeing, and then when we got the order for five plus the pilot we were both overjoyed.

Hale: I had high hopes for it because I loved working with those guys so much, and I loved doing the show, but because of Arrested Development, I knew that you never know what people are going to get into and the ratings and stuff. And they scheduled us against some pretty large competitors, so we were all kind of, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”

On March 15, 2007, “Andy Barker P.I.” premiered with 6 million viewers watching. EW compared it to “Police Squad!” and gave it a B+ and the New York Daily News said that it was “quirky, original and funny” as Richter’s cult-adored prior effort, “Andy Richter Controls the Universe.” On April 10, NBC pulled it from its Thursday night time slot after the show had dropped to about 4 million viewers (a number NBC would kill for now) and burned off the last two episodes on a Saturday night. This after streaming all six episodes on prior to the premiere.

Richter: I was surprised because I had never worked on something that had been so universally critically acclaimed. There were literally no bad reviews, at least none that I saw, and I made a point to see them all. But because of the circumstances of how the show got green-lit, I think there was a barrier of executive ego that we would have had to have been an out-of-the-box ratings juggernaut to overcome. I think somebody in L.A. felt that I said no once, and just because somebody pulled rank and got the show on the schedule against my wishes, I have the ultimate say in programming, so it’s still a no. So we were, as I said before, doomed. The news of our great reviews was met by the execs with what can only be called an unenthusiastic resignation. And I think, even though we only made a few episodes, we were broadcast in about four different time slots, which makes it fairly impossible to get any kind of traction with viewers. Conan said at the time, “It’s like they never even really took a gamble on us; it’s like they were dealt cards and then threw them under the table before the game even started.”

Groff: I do remember writing an impassioned email to Kevin Reilly, reminding him of the old “first be best, then be first” mantra. (We had gotten such overwhelmingly positive reviews that I didn’t feel out of line saying that.) He responded back, very politely, that he just… couldn’t. I think they already had another very expensive but under-performing critical darling on their hands (30 Rock), and there was no room for more of those, and 30 Rock had so much more potential upside, and Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels, and on and on.

Espenson: I was surprised, yes. Especially since I assume the general view had to be that Andy Richter Controls the Universe had been pulled too quickly. This is the kind of show — quirky, ArrestedDevelopment-style comedy — that could be expected to take time to find its audience, but it didn’t get that chance.

Looking Back On What Might Have Been

NBC’s decision to pull the plug on “Andy Barker, P.I.” after just six episodes left a lot of questions about what would have happened to the characters, what the show could have accomplished had it been given more of a chance to build an audience, and eventually, how it would do in today’s TV landscape.

Groff: We hadn’t totally even really landed on what their [Andy and Jenny’s] family situation was. We alluded to a son who he plays baseball with, and then we added a baby for the episode where he is sleep deprived and hallucinates while chasing a drug dealer and a crooked doctor (“The Big No Sleep”). I think we would have tracked Jenny Barker (Clea Lewis) as she got more and more entwined in his cases, maybe overreaching with her ideas and notions. We liked how she got involved in the case where Andy investigates the death of the heavyset but sexually irresistible client/golf buddy (“Fairway, My Lovely”). So, I think her getting a taste for the private eye biz and maybe taking it too far would have been a good source of conflict for their marriage and the show.

Espenson: I would have loved to see it continue in the same way it started. I didn’t feel the need for lots of arcs and changes, just a continuation of good little mysteries made funny by their intersection with the great Andy Barker character.

Tatham: I would have liked to see the show end after 12 successful seasons; Jonathan is such a talented fellow, he deserves it.

Hsia: Our best episodes featured Andy investigating Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-esque criminal conspiracies operating in the totally mundane strip mall that served as our standing set. I would’ve loved ending on a season-long riff on Chinatown, but instead of landowners murdering people over water rights, it’s coffee shops murdering people over WiFi networks.

Groff: We never had a problem coming up with story ideas because there is such a long tradition of cop/detective stuff to draw from and to do your own version of. And I do think we would have humanized the show more (beyond the great humanity that I think all the characters, but especially Andy and Jenny, had) and made it richer and maybe a little deeper. It would have been fun to learn more about Wally’s family and Simon’s background. (We had a notion that he was a rich kid).

Richter: I loved the show. I love Jonathan Groff, and getting to create a show with him on a day-to-day basis will always remain a highlight of my career. And to work with such a good cast, such good writers, all of these things are so hard to engineer, so it really felt like the stars had aligned to make a really quality show. It was just pissed away. It was a re-learning of a lesson I had already known; that the quality of the television show you’re making is perhaps seventh or eighth on the list of reasons why it succeeds or fails.

Groff: It was a niche show, honestly. Some people have said it would have been better all along as an hour long on USA, and we even pitched it to them after we were cancelled (and they were politely not interested). I’m sure it would not have been as funny as an hour. The half hour form causes a nice sense of compression, and it forces you to hit the comedy hard. But maybe it could have been a Monk-like or Psych-like show, which were a lot of fun and ran for a long time.

Tatham: I think the show would do well today, but not on network. It’s the kind of quirky, smart program that would have people flocking to a Netflix or a Showtime. But maybe I’m just a kooky optimist.

Richter: Network comedy isn’t doing that well right now. I’m terrible at TV soothsaying. I think the show could succeed on cable.

Groff: I suppose we were a little early in terms of NBC putting up with low-rated high quality shows like it did for a few years, but I’m not sure without something like Alec Baldwin or a lead like Amy Poehler and the relatability of that Parks and Recreation world that we would have even survived in that environment. It probably should have been a cool FX or Comedy Central show. Of course, then it would have had to be raunchier, and that might have hurt some of the charm of it all.

Espenson: We have finally reached the time that Andy Barker was ahead of.

Andy Barker, P.I. is available now on Hulu and on DVD.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy these similar pieces we’ve done recently…

An Oral History Of That Ultra-Sophisticated ‘Silicon Valley’ Dick Joke

The Key Players Reflect On The Bloody Lawnmower Scene From ‘Mad Men’

Stars And Writers Of ‘NewsRadio’ Look Back On The Show That Refused To Play By The Rules

The Behind-The-Scenes Story Of ‘Diversity Day,’ The Episode That Defined NBC’s ‘The Office’

You Go Big Or You Go Home: An Oral History Of The Creation And Evolution Of ‘Parks And Recreation’

Before The Bullets: An Oral History Of The Creation Of ‘Justified’

An Oral History On The Evolution Of The Upright Citizens Brigade And Its Influence On Improv