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SCOTT SIMON, host:

When Ed McMahon died earlier this week, it had been more than 17 years since he had appeared as Johnny Carson's sidekick on "The Tonight Show." But he certainly left a mark with his ha-ha hearty laugh opening: Here's Johnny! And the night of his death, "The Tonight Show"'s newest sidekick, Andy Richter, paid tribute with his host, Conan O'Brien.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. ANDY RICHTER (Sidekick): I just was thinking about this during the commercial break. A thought occurred to me that I just wanted to mention, just how perfect Ed McMahon was at complementing Johnny Carson, you know? He had this innate ability that you can't…

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Host): (Unintelligible)

Mr. RICHTER: He knew exactly when to talk, that was the thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: He picked his moments. And they were perfect. And that was the key to his greatness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: He picked his moments. And they were, they were perfect. He had…

Mr. O'BRIEN: (Unintelligible)

Mr. RICHTER: And he also knew when to shut up too. And that - I think that's possibly more important, you know?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah.

SIMON: Andy Richter allowed us to get in a couple of questions when we sat down with him in his office at "The Tonight Show" studios in Universal City, California. We asked if he had studied Ed McMahon or other sidekicks before taking over the podium across from Conan.

Mr. RICHTER: I don't really look to other people to kind of define my role in something like this. And it's not something to be proud of, as it sounds. Because it's mostly out of laziness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: I just decide to go my own way. Because otherwise you'd have to study something. So you know, it is a talk show, and it's "The Tonight Show," and I'm very aware that this is - it's not our show. We're taking over an institution and we're sort of caretakers. And that doesn't really belong to us. It belongs to everybody, as highfalutin as that sounds. But I feel that more on "The Tonight Show" than I did on "Late Night."

It's our own identity, but it's in a much more limited free space, I think, for us to put our imprint. Because there's a certain level of things that people want from this show. And we have to listen to that, I think. You know, it's - this is not the place to run your experimental film. It's "The Tonight Show," you know.

SIMON: If I may, do you think of this as a return or coming back to a new show, "The Tonight Show"?

Mr. RICHTER: Well, I hadn't really considered it in such blunt terms. But it's both because it's a new show, it's a new place. It's definitely not the old show. But I know everybody. And I've been in the same atmosphere. Everything this show, if viewed from outer space, is the same. But it's different.

SIMON: I wonder if you, if in your mind you have any two or three ideas as to what makes a show like this work.

Mr. RICHTER: Well, first thing foremost, I think if you start to just aim for what you think the audience wants to hear, you are already hamstrung. Because nobody knows what anybody really wants, what they want to see. So the only thing that you can do is do something that you think is funny. And I don't mean become a big artiste. But do try to tickle your own funny bone as much as you can and hope that you have a sense of humor that other people can relate to.

SIMON: Without mentioning names, unless you really want to…

Mr. RICHTER: Uh-huh.

SIMON: …can you recall meeting a celebrity in this circumstance…

Mr. RICHTER: Uh-huh?

SIMON: …that was markedly different than what you thought they were or what their image was?

Mr. RICHTER: Um - David Bowie. Because growing up and hearing about rock and roll lore, about David Bowie, he'd lose months at a time because he was on so many drugs. He put a cigarette out in a rock critic's ear who had given him a bad review. And he was just possibly one of the nicest, politest, chattiest, at ease, contented people I had the pleasure to meet.

That's always nice. Because there's very few of the people that are doing this that you feel a real sense that this is a real person here. Because it's an incredibly plastic atmosphere, just - a talk show - in the publicity machine you really do have to put on some armor when you go into it. Because it's a sausage grinder.

SIMON: Well, this is something people have complained about, and not just critics, that shows like this, with Jack Paar, or even Johnny Carson, used to talk to people.

Mr. RICHTER: Uh-huh.

SIMON: And somebody wasn't on necessarily just because they were…

Mr. RICHTER: Yes.

SIMON: …in a new movie.

Mr. RICHTER: Yes. Peter O'Toole.

SIMON: Peter O'Toole, Carl Sagan - on "The Tonight"…

Mr. RICHTER: Yeah, exactly, just to be interesting, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, both you and Conan have interesting, wide-ranging minds.

Mr. RICHTER: Well, thank you.

SIMON: But do you have the latitude to do that here?

Mr. RICHTER: It's very rare. And in fact, when people do come on and they don't have anything to plug, it's now such a rarity that it has to be mentioned. I'm not here to plug anything. And it seems like such a novel idea. Like it or don't like it, the more sure-fire thing is the big names. And the big names come out when there's something in it for them. Because if you'll notice, anyone who ever gets any kind of clout stops doing interviews almost immediately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: You never hear Robert De Niro interviewed. You never hear Jack Nicholson interviewed. Because they've reached a point where they know that it's as close to doing door-to-door sales, which I did a little bit of - it feels like that.

SIMON: What did you sell door-to-door?

Mr. RICHTER: I worked for my uncle. My uncle had a factory supply business, which was palette racks and lockers and…

SIMON: Were you ever funny? Did you ever try to be funny?

Mr. RICHTER: No, it was far too depressing to be funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: And when I waited tables too. I waited tables a few different times. And I remember after working there for months, one of the waitresses saying like, I didn't know that you were funny. Because it took me a couple of months to be funny, because you keep your head down, that's totally the way I felt in work, in the real workplace. That's why I had to retreat to the fake workplace like this, where you're sort of expected to knock holes in walls and, you know, use a real bowling ball to go bowling in the hallway, things like that.

SIMON: Could we get you putting some golf balls?

Mr. RICHTER: Sure, sure.

SIMON: Assuming you do that.

Mr. RICHTER: Yes, I do. Not a lot. But it's better to do it out in the hallway because you can do the longer putts. And then you get some, you know…

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. RICHTER: There's actually - some money goes on.

(Soundbite of golf putt)

SIMON: Andy, that must have been about 75 feet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: You can tell from the roll sound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You just hit it very soundly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: Yes.

SIMON: You have a family, right?

Mr. RICHTER: I do. I have an eight-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. She was doing pre-verbal comedy beats. She used to make faces before she could speak that were just to make people laugh. Because my wife could say like, do that face and she, you know, by the time (unintelligible) can't speak is mugging, it's quite an amazing thing.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)

Mr. RICHTER: Oh, this is her speaking different languages.

Unidentified Child: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: She is great.

Mr. RICHTER: Yeah. And my boy is good. He's great too.

SIMON: They know what you do for a living?

Mr. RICHTER: They're starting to more. My son definitely - being in the movie "Madagascar" and then "Madagascar 2," having a voice in that. And taking him to the premiere. I think he kind of starts to realize that I have a job that's actually kind of fun. They're still ultimately unimpressed with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTER: They do know that somehow I lucked into this nice position.

SIMON: I enjoyed a couple of things I saw you do…

Mr. RICHTER: Oh.

SIMON: …when you were not on, you know, during the interregnum.

Mr. RICHTER: Were these work things or just things you spotted me doing around town?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I mean work things.

Mr. RICHTER: Yeah.

SIMON: And are you going to have the time or inclination to do that now that you're doing this?

Mr. RICHTER: You know, once Conan asked me if I would like to take this job and I said yes, then it became a conversation more between managers and lawyers and all of that. And one of the things that came up in that conversation was Conan had given me his sort of, you know, just conversational assurance that I would be able to eventually go out and do some other things. And I definitely intend on holding him to that. But it - I just started on the new version of "The Tonight Show." I think I can - maybe I'll just focus my energies here for a year or so. It is "The Tonight Show," after all.

SIMON: Andy Richter in his new office at "The Tonight Show" studios in Universal City. You can hear more from him, including his opinion of the controversy surrounding David Letterman's Sarah Palin joke, on our blog, npr.org/soapbox.

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