You know how you start thinking of someone you haven’t thought of in ages then someone you talk to brings up that same person’s name? That happened with me when I interviewed rapper-actor Ice-T for his Hollywood Walk of Fame honor – a star along Hollywood Blvd that he got last week. During our conversation, Ice-T brought up the name of his old friend and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actor Richard Belzer.
“I knew (Richard) Belzer,” said Ice-T, talking about his first days at Dick Wolf’s Law & Order. “I’m a comedy fan, and knew he was in Scarface… I connected with Belzer real quick – he’s real grimy and knows about the streets. He’s a very cool dude, and told me everything NOT to worry about. It was like being in a prison yard with him, because he was teaching me what to say and how to play it. Belzer was my OG. It was all cool.”
Having Ice-T call you “the OG” is like being – in David Mamet’s words – the guy behind the guy behind the guy. And as an actor in Law & Order: SVU and Homicide: Life on the Street where he started and continued his role as the forensically intelligent and caustically witty Detective John Munch this character – according to Variety Magazine – appeared in more TV series than any other fictional character. Belzer’s Munch ran across nine separate series, on five networks, since the character’s debut in 1993. With Munch’s retirement in the detective’s 22nd season on television, the character was on U.S. television longer than “Gunsmoke’s” Marshall Matt Dillon or Frasier Crane (“Cheers” and “Frasier”), each of whom appeared on TV for 20 seasons. Belzer did guest appearances as Munch on a range of other shows, from comedies “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock” to HBO’s “The Wire,” Fox’s “The X-Files” and UPN’s “The Beat.”
None of Munch would have happened if not for Belzer’s experience as an OG of stand-up comedy. And when Belzer died on Sunday in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France at the age of 78 years old, all of his stand-up bits came roaring back to life.
Belzer – always in a suit, a blazer and sunglasses with the edgiest of dark comic demeanors – was the epitome of East Coast cool. “Richard Belzer died,” wrote podcaster and comedian Marc Maron, a man who knows something about black comedy. “He was an original. One of the greats, babe. I loved the guy. RIP.”
Long before the late, great, metal edged Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay, Belzer was pretty much the first rock and roll stand-up comedian. Cocksure and wriggly like Jagger, the lanky Belzer joked about the things that he knew about – drugs (which he loved until he didn’t), conspiracy theories and UFOs (his HBO special was titled Another Lone Nut, and he wrote several books on the subject such as UFO’s, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe and Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country’s Most Controversial Cover-Ups), government, the mean streets, sex, rock and roll, and more drugs.
All this and Belzer even wrote a book – or a piss take on a book – called How to Be a Stand-Up Comic which is really mostly just photos of him making jokes. That, in and of itself, is triply hilarious, a real Marcel Duchamp Dada act of comedic defiance and thumbing one’s nose at artistic temperament and tradition. With that canard alone, Belzer was something of a scamp, the guy playing three card monte telling you the card is, and pulling the rug from under you every chance he got. I wouldn’t call Belzer’s humor mean spirited in the same way that, say, Bill Hicks’ comedy could be, but it was close – vitriolically, manically and abrasively close.
“When I first came to New York in 1974, Gilda Radner took me to Catch a Rising Star , and Richard was absolutely hysterical,” said Paul Shaffer – SNL pianist and David Letterman band leader – to People Magazine. “His friends would go to the basement, where the performers hung out, and with pipes dripping on you, Richard would make you laugh. That was the hippest place to be at that time.’”
Whether you YouTube his bitterly funny bits on David Letterman or find hyper-sarcastic scenes from his legendary stand-ups from New York City comedy clubs such as Catch a Rising Star, Pips and the Improv, you’ll see someone hot-wired, and looking for trouble in true punk rock fashion. Talking under his breath and out the side of his mouth or yelling as if hailing a cab, Belzer was stand-up comic not so much in-tune with hacky punchline after punchline, but a raw-knuckled comedian more about weird, rambling, haunted, psychosis-filled stories and getting you to believe what he believed. Or just pushing your buttons.
How rock and roll a stand-up comedian was Richard Belzer to the end? If we are to believe any of the press about his last words – “Fuck you motherfucker” – pretty rock and roll.