When Richard Belzer the act of standing On “Late Night With David Letterman,” he always came into opening plays for the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” dancing his way around the stage, looking like the life of the party in darker shades. Once at the microphone, he made sure to interact with the studio audience in a way you rarely see on TV. More than once he asked, “Are you in a good mood?” I waited cheering. Then his tone shifted: “Prove it.”
With this opening pivot, he turned the relationship between the comedian and the audience on its head. The expectation now on the people in the seats was: Like it.
Belzer, who died Sunday, was best known for his performances as a detective on television, but his acting career was built on a standout in comedy, as the master of seductive teamwork who set the template for MC’s in the early days of the Comedy Club. He often wore low-cut jackets and shirts, cutting an elegant, prickly, and mysterious image. He could charm with the best of them, but unlike many artists, he wasn’t desperate for your approval. He understood that one of the odd things about comedy is that the line between irritation and grumbling can blur so easily.
Throughout the ’70s, he ran the show at New York’s busiest club: Catch a Rising Star, the stand-up answer to Studio 54. He roasted crowds as they heated up, grilling them about where they were and what they did, establishing harmony and dominance. Long before Dave Chappelle dropped the mic at the end of shows, Belzer was doing it regularly.
If the crowd isn’t laughing, it can lie in its guilt trip: “Could you be a little quieter? Because I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.” And if someone is bothering you, beware. According to a story from comedian Jonathan Katz, one night someone exclaimed, “Nice sweater!” Belzer replies that he got it for sale in his mother’s vagina.
Belzer didn’t catch on as quickly as many of his peers, but he was a cult figure with huge influence in comedy. You can hear his clipped beats, not to mention his use of the word “babe” as a nickname, in the act of Dennis Miller, who once referred to him as the “Dark Prince” to catch a rising star. Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton Inspired in part by Belzer (note the glasses).
Even as an MC, Belzer was his own star. He is known for taking an incredibly long time to deliver a comic. Interviewed for a yet-to-be-released documentary about him, Belzer recalls taking an hour and forty-five minutes to bring up the next comic. Writer Bill Scheft, who produced the film, said Belzer had many lines “that became other people’s MC stock lines”.
Few of Belzer’s live performances have been recorded, but you can find traces online. He’s an all-purpose showman who can sing and dance, and has even pulled a trick while impersonating a hipster pose. One of the cool fetishes involves hanging his hand as it runs through his hair, pulling his entire body down to the ground. He leaned heavily on flashy impressions including those of Ronald Reagan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and especially Mick Jagger. There are wonderful A competitive moment from the 2011 show “Green Room.”When, in the middle of a conversation, Belzer gets into a “Jagger Off” with comedian Rick Overton. He triumphs, and makes an impression he always called “peacocking on acid.”
More than any joke, what stood out from the deep dive into Belzer’s online comedy was the attitude: impatient, sarcastic, friendly but quick to poke. There was a gurgling sound in his responses to the crowd: “Yeah, right, sure.” These constant interruptions had a rhythm and sound that were quintessential New York. As he dives into a familiar premise, his voice can go from dry to sarcastic in the blink of an eye, making fun of himself. No wonder Letterman, another satirist whose attitude constantly commented on and intimidated his jokes, had him so bookish.
Today, teamwork is easier to see, in specials but also throughout social media, as it has become an important part of the marketing and sale of young comedy tickets. But in the ’80s, unless you went to a club, you didn’t often find people switching to “Where are you from?” In spontaneous comedy, he is striking in his filmography 1986 HBO SpecialIt includes many of these basic interactions. “There are many parts of New Jersey that are very nice,” he said, in response to a man from the state. “I can’t think of anything now.”
like as early as 1978opening the combos with a touch of hostility, he looked up and asked, “Can you make these lights brighter? I’d like to go blind.”
Nothing in the video shows his status like a 90-minute show celebrating the The tenth anniversary of the capture of a rising star It aired on HBO in 1982. It’s a slick picture of comedy in New York at the time, with a long billing that includes Andy Kaufman, Billy Crystal, Rita Rudner and David Brenner, along with singer Pat Benatar, which was run by club owner Rick Newman.
Belzer gives it all to them, keeping things sarcastic enough to stop anyone from taking themselves too seriously. Once Joe Piscopo had finished his Frank Sinatra impression in full costume and make-up, Belzer exclaimed: “What an honor. What a surprise. What a man. What a wig.”
In the end, Robin Williams teased Belzer from among the crowd, before taking to the stage and improvising a series of scenes to cap off the night. While Belzer was relatively unknown to the mainstream at the time, Williams was a giant TV star and solid live performer, frantic and wildly unpredictable. Williams rolled punch lines with ease, but Belzer continued to counter him, line by line. That some didn’t make the landing only adds oomph to the feat, as it proves that this wasn’t a polished feat for HBO but a genuine attempt to translate high-wire improvements to television.
This ephemeral action isn’t quite the bit of comedy you tend to see in movies or specials, but when done well, it can be exciting. And part of the MC’s job is to recognize the value of spontaneous moments. Belzer understood this like no one else.
“The greatest thing for me is when I make the audience laugh at a moment that could only happen that night with that audience,” he said in a recent interview. “Sometimes I laugh with the audience because I hear the joke at the same time.”
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