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Richard Belzer Was Always a Comedian First, John Munch Second

The actor’s decades in stand-up allowed him to turn a procedural detective into one of TV’s most memorable characters.
  • Richard Belzer (Photo: © Lifetime Television/courtesy of Everett Collection)
    Richard Belzer (Photo: © Lifetime Television/courtesy of Everett Collection)

    Richard Belzer died on Sunday, February 20, 2023, and according to his longtime friend Bill Scheft, his final words were “F*ck you, motherf*cker.” It was Belzer’s last punchline, giving fans one more chuckle on his way out and reminding everyone that first and foremost, he was a comedian.

    Before solidifying his career as one of the mainstays of Dick Wolf’s dramatic universe, Belzer (or “The Belz”) was known for his biting stand-up and satirical comedy. He was part of the cast of the National Lampoon Radio Hour from 1973 to 1974 alongside John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase. His first TV-adjacent gig was as the warm-up comic for Saturday Night Live from 1975 to 1980, and you can spot him as an extra in a handful of sketches from those early seasons. In 1984, he became the host of his own talk show, The Richard Belzer Show. The series didn’t last more than a year, but that was probably for the best after Hulk Hogan cracked his skull open while performing a wrestling demonstration as a guest. But Belzer was able to channel that incident into the medium he knew best, turning it into a joke on his album Another Lone Nut. All roads led him back to stand-up.

    As a comedian, Belzer was never afraid to get political, and part of what made his jokes especially compelling was the way he sprinkled in conspiracy theories that he very much believed. His quickfire delivery was perfect for rattling off details with such confidence that would lead anyone to believe that there was a government conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy, or Elvis Presely was still alive and hanging out with his best friend The Belz.

    When Belzer took to the stand-up stage, he did so with authority. In clips from his days at the Improv in New York City, he’s seen starting sets by calling out the loudest person in the audience and dressing them down or immediately spewing directions at the camera operators filming the evening. He instantly let people know he was in charge now, and they better shut up and keep up. His sets moved at a breakneck pace, a mix of political commentary, impressions of people like Ronald Reagan and Jerry Lewis, and pure goofiness, like acting out what it would be like if adults behaved like kids when things weren’t going their way. In a short amount of stage time, he was able to spew out an inordinate number of punchlines, providing something for everyone without losing his distinct perspective.

    It’s a combination of that universal appeal, often sarcastic delivery, and direct opposition of authority that made his character John Munch work. Munch was introduced as a homicide detective in the 1993 premiere of Homicide: Life on the Street. From the jump he was a cynical character with a sharp tongue. When that series, which was set in Baltimore, was canceled, the character moved to New York and became part of the main cast of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 1999. There Munch served as comedic relief while still being a darn good detective — his humor wasn’t used just as a coping mechanism in the face of some of the most horrific crimes he’s seen, but also as a way to disarm witnesses and suspects into giving up more information than they originally intended.

    Belzer’s natural dry wit fit perfectly into the extended Law & Order universe, which came to be defined partly by its ridiculous one-liners. It’s not easy to casually drop a Dick Wolf zinger, but Belzer’s comedic background made him a pro at saying lines like “I don’t want to rain on your parade, I just want to blow up all the floats.”

    And the conspiracy theories that he would integrate into his act found their way onto the show, too, providing a much-needed foil to the inherent uplifting of “the man” in the series. In the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit pilot, Munch is seen lecturing his coworkers on the government cover-up of JFK’s assassination, taken straight from Belzer’s own theories, and his skepticism of the government continued throughout the series. Yes, Munch was a cop himself, but he was never afraid to question the system and all authority figures in his way.

    Munch the character ended up appearing on 11 different television shows — The X-Files, The Wire, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock among them — the only fictional character played by a single actor to do so. He appeared in a mix of comedies and dramas, a genre shift that isn’t always easy even for the most seasoned actors. But armed with his quick wit and boldness built up over decades as a career comic, Belzer was able to do it all.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Richard Belzer, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The X-Files