Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bitter Jester: Richard Belzer on Munch, Seinfeld, And The Stage Manners of Rupert Pupkin


Not so long ago, someone was trying to sell Richard Belzer’s 1961 high school yearbook on eBay. The bidding was not intense, but the listing was oddly revealing about the school days of the American actor. "The Belz did NOT play football, basketball or baseball," it said. "He DIDN’T wrestle or swim. In fact, it looked like he didn’t do ANYTHING."
To those who are familiar with Belzer’s most famous television role, Detective John Munch - a character which began life in Homicide: Life on the Street, but which also appeared in four other series, including The X-Files and Law and Order; Special Victims Unit, this description may seen familiar. Munch is one of the treasured characters of American TV; a lugubrious soul whose name is pronounced to rhyme with "punch", but which is designed to evoke the artist who painted The Scream.
As a character, Munch is not far-removed from the actor who plays him, and who is also a renowned stand-up comedian. "It’s a character who would be very close to what I would be if I were a cop," says Belzer. "He’s distant, and he’s opinionated, and he was radical when he was younger, and he doesn’t trust authority. He reads a lot, he’s always got a dark joke about some grim situation."
Belzer was due to perform at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but was forced out by filming commitments. He appeared in spirit, however. The film Bitter Jester, which he executive produced, was screened, and its director/star, Maija DiGiorgio, hosted a top-line bill in a show called Not Richard Belzer.
The movie documents the travails of a female stand-up on the American comedy circuit. Belzer’s contribution was to introduce DiGiorgio to a number of celebrated comedians and club owners. The result, says Belzer, reveals the misogyny of the comedy world. "It’s interesting to see what people will say on camera to indict themselves, in terms of their insensitivity to women’s plight."
Another thing which emerges in Bitter Jester is the antipathy felt by young comics towards superstar comedians, such as Jerry Seinfeld (whose documentary, Comedian, also featured in the film festival). Seinfeld’s film, Belzer says, "is the multi-millionaire’s take on it, and Maija’s is the struggling, broke female put-upon comic’s take. They should show on the same bill because they’re so antithetical, and yet they’re about the same business."
Belzer has his own view about the type of people who become comedians.
"I’ve always been allergic to the stereotype of the neurotic comedian who had a tough childhood and always has to be ‘on’. There are certainly guys like that. And there are guys who have come from poor backgrounds, but that’s a cliché from vaudeville, and this is two generations later. There’s a lot of middle class people who had very normal childhoods and became very good comedians.
"When you see someone like Jerry who doesn’t appear to have the clichéd angst and a neuroses and dark side that a lot of comedians are supposed to have, and then you see Maija who’s in psychoanalysis and has this crazy boyfriend, and then you see all these characters around her and around him, there’s a bunch of divergent personalities.
"There’s a young comic in Jerry’s movie, who is the most repellent, unlikeable person you could possibly imagine. But, for whatever reason, the people who made that film chose to put him in there. My suspicion is that he’s so obnoxious and off-putting that you say, ‘Oh, Jerry’s a great guy’, by comparison."
Belzer’s journey into stand-up was almost accidental. He began as an actor in an experimental troupe called Channel One, which operated in a basement theatre in Manhattan. "This was, literally and figuratively, underground television. We put three television monitors up in the theatre. We did commercial parodies and movie parodies and original pieces on video. Then we showed them in this theatre. It was quite innovative, because no-one had ever paid to see television before."
On the strength of Channel One, Belzer and Co were given the money to make Groove Tube, a precursor to the likes of Saturday Night Live. While making this, Belzer was persuaded to try stand-up, opening for a friend of a friend, who was a singer. "I went on almost as a dare. That was, I think, July 10, 1971. In a club called the Escape Hatch in Cranford, New Jersey, that was underground, literally. It was a basement club. I just fell in to it."
In an act based on characters and impressions, he did a black newscaster, Rod Steiger as a weatherman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Bob Dylan. He graduated to a slot as the MC of the club Catch a Rising Star, introducing 20 or 30 acts over five hours. "In between I had to say something, so my style evolved through improvisation and ad-libbing, by talking to the audience, by bringing up a newspaper, by talking about what had happened that day. It forced me to be fresh all the time. I might start talking to somebody in the audience or pick up a woman’s purse and rifle through it for 10 minutes. You’d be surprised what I found."
Belzer also made a tangential contribution to stand-up history when Robert De Niro shadowed him during his preparation for King of Comedy.
"De Niro came to the clubs and hung out backstage, and we talked a lot about what stand-up comedy is." In one of their conversations, Belzer and De Niro compared stand-up to boxing. "You’re alone, and you wanna knock ’em out. You want to kill the audience. Punchline, all that stuff."
DeNiro’s character, Rupert Pupkin, was, says Belzer, "a brilliant, unique hybrid of a particular type of person." A real-life example of this type can be seen, Belzer says, in the Seinfeld movie. "The younger guy. This obnoxious monster."
As well as his comedy, Belzer is a student of conspiracy theories, many of which he chronicles in his book, UFOs, JFK and Elvis. "A lot of the stuff I’ve learned over the years, if you want to discuss it with people, their eyes glaze over, so you have to couch it in comedic terms. But I’m fascinated by things that you don’t have to make up, like real information."
There is evidence, he says, of higher civilisations, if not aliens. "Clearly there were incredibly advanced intelligences on this planet in antiquity. Whether they come from other planets or not, I don’t know, but there’s enough evidence now of archaeological sites, artefacts and histories that are called myths: like the Sumerian tablets that have been translated over the last 30 or 40 years. So I’m open to the idea that we aren’t the only thing going on."
Elvis fans who buy his book may be disappointed, however. "The reason I put that in, is because George Bush, when asked if there was a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination, said, ‘Oh yeah, and Elvis is still alive’. It’s a way of the American mainstream marginalising the idea that Kennedy was killed by more than one person, or that there might be UFOs, or that our government somehow might hide something from us."
When he isn’t filming, Belzer lives in the South West of France, in a house purchased with the aid of a settlement he received when Hulk Hogan attacked him on a chat show. From there, he watches American politics with a growing sense of dread.
"I was a newspaper reporter in the 1960s, and I’ve been through Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, and I am really distressed, embarrassed, worried and terrified that these right wing ideologues have commandeered the government and set up their own secret service and their own way of starting wars, and their own way of cutting back on the environment, and crushing the poor. It’s my worst nightmare. If I didn’t have a house in France I’d be insane now.
"Plus Bush wasn’t really elected - the Supreme Court gave him the job. America’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And the government is playing up this terror thing and just arbitrarily calling alerts whenever it suits their needs. It’s very Orwellian. We’re really living in an Orwellian period where peace means war and love is hate."
A sentiment with which Munch would struggle to disagree.
Alastair McKay
(Published in The Scotsman, 9 August, 2003)