Richard Belzer, better known as Detective John Munch on NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU,” spent the 1970s as one of New York’s top stand-up comedians. Given that, it’s not surprising that he has a pretty unique way of looking at things — the sort of singular perspective that led him to write a book back in 1999 called “UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy To Believe.”
These days, though, Belzer is promoting a very different sort of book. “I Am Not A Cop!” his first novel, features an actor named Richard Belzer who plays a fictional TV detective named John Munch — and who then somehow gets mixed up in a real-life murder. Belzer, who performs a rare stand-up show tomorrow night, Jan. 17, at Manhattan’s Town Hall with longtime friend Richard Lewis, spoke to Bankrate about Munch, conspiracies, the Federal Reserve and his early days in the stand-up world.
Bankrate: Detective Munch is a real activist type with a bit of conspiracy theorist thrown in. How closely is he modeled after you?
Richard Belzer: When I first got the role, I had no idea it would evolve into becoming very close to how I think in real life. So it’s been a wonderful, delightful adventure for me as an actor to have this dream role for the last 16 years now, playing this character and watching how the writers on all these shows I’ve done have taken to the character. Also, it’s been an actor’s dream for me, because I get to put all my dissidence and conspiratorial thoughts and gallows humor in, like I do in real life.
Bankrate: Was Munch not like that at the beginning?
Richard Belzer: The conspiracy thing wasn’t as prevalent. He was always a dissident, but that evolved over time quite naturally.
Bankrate: Which of your “SVU” cast members are you closest with?
Richard Belzer: Chris Meloni and I have become incredibly close. Mariska (Hargitay) has become my sister, and Ice-T and I have become like brothers on the set. We really dig working together, and we have our own kind of language that we’ve evolved with looks and sighs and certain comments. We’re really on the same page in many ways.
Bankrate: You were the warm-up comic for the first-ever episode of “Saturday Night Live.” What are your memories of that time?
Richard Belzer: In those days, there was no TV on from 11:30 p.m. to 1 am, and the network didn’t have any idea. They said, you kids can have the keys to the candy store tonight. The cast that was put together, as we all know now, was so remarkable.
One of the great things about the early days was that everybody was on the same page, on the same side, and had the same point of view. And the talent was at such a high level that I think everybody, including the cast, was amazed at how effective it was, and how culturally meaningful it became.
I always believed the ’70s were reverberating and recovering from the ’60s. Everything exploded in the ’60s, and then people started doing the stuff that exploded in the ’70s. So the ’70s were really a continuation of the ’60s, and the references on the show to drugs and sex and politics, no one had ever seen that before on television. It struck a nerve with an entire country, and particularly the younger generation. And the show’s still on, so I think people were so connected to the show that they went with it during its lesser years, and that faith has paid off, because obviously last year was another renaissance for the show.
Bankrate: You were the dean of New York stand-up in the ’70s. How would you compare the atmosphere in the comedy scene then with the way it is today?
Richard Belzer: In those days, in the very early days, we didn’t even get paid. We got cab fare. The people that did it — me, Richard Lewis, Jay (Leno), David Letterman, Jimmie Walker — we really wanted to be in the business. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been sleeping on my brother’s couch and living on yogurt.
In those days, the ’70s, you really wanted to be a comic. Then, when the business exploded, a lot of people who really weren’t funny got into it because there were all these millions of shows and thousands of comedy clubs. A deli would put a microphone in front of a brick wall and call it Mr. Poo Poo’s Comedy Pot. It was an influx of mediocrity.
But there was a while there, in the late ’70s, where there were a lot of really good people, and people were getting sitcoms — Roseanne, Tim Allen, Gabe (Kaplan), Jimmie (Walker), and then later Larry Sanders (played by Garry Shandling) and Jerry Seinfeld. So stand-up comics became king as a result of the explosion of the ’70s.
Now, it’s a totally different world. There are very few things on television that are purely for stand-ups. Thank God for Letterman. The clubs are not as plentiful. There are still some good clubs around, but it’s obviously harder now. The business is different.
But in another way, because of the Internet, a lot of people can make a name for themselves without having to be on network television. So that’s the new vaudeville. That’s the new explosion. The way in the ’70s they had comedy clubs everywhere, now you have the Web. I think it’s great, because there are people that maybe can’t get an agent or a gig, but they’re really funny, and they can post their stuff. So in that regard, there’s a lot of opportunity, but you have to be a bit more creative now, because you have to be able to shoot it. You’re not just standing on a stage. There are other elements involved.
Bankrate: How has what’s happening with the economy affected you?
Richard Belzer: Fortunately, I have a job. But I’m very distressed that because of reality shows, dance shows and game shows, a lot less comedians and actors are working. I can see where people are hurting to begin with because of the economy, but then there’s lack of work, so it’s a double whammy. In that regard, I think it’s my job, and (the job of) all comedians — a civic responsibility — that we really have to get out there and entertain people. During the depression, 80 million people went to the movies every week to escape. So I think there’s a new obligation. I feel it, and my friends feel it. We’re really compelled to do our best work.
Bankrate: You’ve talked and written a lot about conspiracies. Would you call yourself a conspiracy theorist?
Richard Belzer: Sure. Unashamedly.
Bankrate: Has being a conspiracy theorist stopped you from investing your money in the same conventional ways as everyone else?
Richard Belzer: It has nothing to do with conspiracy. It has to do with the reality of banks in this country. Since the turn of the century, on every level, they literally finance everything, and they’ve convinced people that the Federal Reserve is an arm of the government. It’s the biggest lie of all.
The Federal Reserve is not an arm of the government. It borrows money from private banks. After the depression, those banks got bailed out. The savings and loan, it got bailed out. This latest thing, I call them reverse bank robberies. The banks rob us. And that’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s just reality.
The word “conspiracy” has been marginalized, but if you think about every great event in all of history, conspiracies are everywhere: assassinations, wars, Iran/Contra, medical experiments on our own people. Conspiracies go on all the time. So the word’s been made fun of, but the reality is, everything is a conspiracy until it’s proven otherwise, not the other way around.
Bankrate: That’s an interesting way of looking at life. When you’re having conversations about things like this, do people readily accept your views, or do you get challenged a lot?
Richard Belzer: People roll their eyes sometimes, and they challenge it because the word (conspiracy) has taken on a meaning that is not true to what it really means. Every single historian knows that there are conspiracies. It’s not like this crazy, “Elvis on a UFO having sex with Marilyn Monroe” thing. That’s where they take it to marginalize it.
But in reality, there are things going on. Don’t go by me. Go on the Internet, type in the word “conspiracies,” or type in “government coverup,” and it’s corroborated — public domain proof. Virtually every major event was conspired about. I think the biggest example of that is the last eight years, the incredible secrecy with which this particular administration has conspired with big oil, and conspired with Haliburton, and conspired with other governments.
Look at the mess we’re in. It’s all out there, it’s just that people don’t want to make all these nefarious connections because it unsettles their sense of order and reality. Chaos is just a kind of order that we don’t understand yet.