A few days after the passing of Paul Krassner seems an appropriate time for a little birthday appreciation of comedian, actor and journalist/author Richard Belzer (b. 1944). Belzer is undoubtedly best known (by far) for his role as Detective John Munch on the shows Homicide: Life on the Street and Law and Order: SVU and other programs starting in 1993, but really that’s just the most superficial (if most visible) layer of his legacy. He was around for decades before than that, and doing lots of other stuff.
Born and raised in Bridgeport, CT (P.T. Barnum’s town, not insignificantly), Belzer started out as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post. This background as a journalist affected everything he did subsequently, from his stand-up material to his later books, most of which propound conspiracy theories. I.F. Stone is a name he’s as liable to drop in interviews as his comedy heroes. Circa 1972 he moved to NYC to take part in the stand-up comedy scene, performing at such venues as Catch a Rising Star and The Improv. From 1973 through 1975 he was a cast member of The National Lampoon Radio Hour with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty. With Chase, he was one of the stars of the 1974 movie The Groove Tube, an influential film parodying television which had been developed in a live stage show during the early ’70s. Unlike many of his cohorts, he was not cast on Saturday Night Live, although he was the warm-up act for the show on a few occasions during the era of the original cast. The fact that his cousin was Henry Winkler, star of the hit TV series Happy Days, can’t have hurt his career any.
I first became aware of Belzer during the 1980s, when he frequently performed his stand-up act on television. He had an unsettling, cadaver like presence not unlike that of The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, tall, pale, thin, usually dressed in dark clothes, his eyes invariably hidden behind pornographer’s sunglasses. The latter reinforced his “First Amendment” vibe. Like Lenny Bruce and the aforementioned Krassner he possessed a whiff of somebody who considered it his mission to deal in the illicit. He has called Richard Pryor the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Censorship was a constant issue for him. TV clips from the ’70s seemed relatively apolitical — his material poked fun at show business a lot, he did impressions of Vegas singers and talked about rock and roll. When he said, “If Mick Jagger can’t get no satisfaction, I’m a mummy”, he scored a double hit by simultaneously referencing current pop culture and his own forbidding persona. In the ’80s, when cable television came into the picture, he was allowed to get more political and began doing Reagan material.’
Belzer has said that the Watergate break-in was the event that “radicalized” him and sent him back to look at the JFK assassination and other conspiracies. This character trait was given to his television character John Munch, and became the basis for his books UFOs, JFK and Elvis (1999); Dead Wrong (2012) and Hit List (2013).
In the early 1980s Belzer married model and actress Harlee McBride, star of the Young Lady Chatterly films. We have had the honor of collaborating with McBride’s daughter Bree Benton numerous times in her guise as Poor Baby Bree. She was our very first Vaudephone!
But we digress, Here’s a picture of Munch and Ice-T: