When Richard Belzer did stand-up on “Late Night With David Letterman,” he always entered to the opening riffs of “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones, dancing his way onstage, looking like the life of the party in dark shades. Once he arrived at the microphone, he made a point of engaging with the studio audience in a way you rarely saw on television. More than once, he asked, “You in a good mood?” and waited for a cheer. Then his tone shifted: “Prove it.”
With that opening pivot, he turned the relationship between comedian and crowd upside-down. The expectation was now on the people in the seats: Impress me.
Belzer, who died Sunday, is best known for his performances as a detective on TV, but his acting career was built on a signature persona in comedy, as a master of seductive crowd work who set the template for the MC in the early days of the comedy club. Often in jackets and shirts buttoned low, he cut a stylish image, spiky and louche. He could charm with the best of them, but unlike many performers, he didn’t come off as desperate for your approval. He understood that one of the peculiar things about comedy is that the line between irritation and ingratiation could easily blur.
Throughout the 1970s, he ran the show at the buzziest of the New York clubs: Catch a Rising Star, stand-up’s answer to Studio 54. He roasted the crowds while warming them up, quizzing them about where they were from and what they did, establishing rapport and dominance. Long before Dave Chappelle dropped the mic at the end of shows, Belzer regularly did so.
If the crowd wasn’t laughing, he could lay on a guilt trip: “Could you be a little more quiet? Because I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.” And if someone heckled, look out. According to a story from the comic Jonathan Katz, one night someone in the crowd yelled, “Nice jacket!” and Belzer responded that he got it on sale in his mother’s vagina.
Belzer didn’t get famous as quickly as many of his peers, but he was a cult figure with wide influence in comedy. You can hear his clipped cadences, 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” of Catch a Rising Star. Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton was partly inspired by Belzer (notice the glasses).
Even as an MC, Belzer was his own star attraction. He became famous for taking an incredibly long time to introduce a comic. In an interview for a documentary on him that has yet to be released, Belzer recalled once taking an hour and forty-five minutes to bring up the next comic. The standup Bill Scheft, who is producing the movie, said Belzer ad-libbed many lines “that became stock MC lines for others.”
Few of Belzer’s live shows were taped, but you can find traces online. An all-purpose showman who could sing and dance, he even did pratfalls while spoofing a hipster pose. One wonderfully goofy bit involved getting his hand stuck while running it through his hair, dragging his whole body down to the ground. He leaned hard on flamboyant impressions including those of Ronald Reagan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and especially Mick Jagger. There’s a wonderful competitive moment from the 2011 show “Green Room” when, in the middle of a conversation, Belzer gets into a “Jagger-off” with the comic Rick Overton. He triumphs, doing an impression he always called “peacock on acid.”
More than any joke, what stands out from a deep dive into Belzer’s online comedy was an attitude: impatient, sarcastic, friendly but quick to jab. There was a percussive sound to his running retorts to the crowd: “Yeah, right, sure.” These move-it-along interruptions had a rhythm and sound that was quintessentially New York. When he dove into a familiar premise, his voice could move from dry to wry in a blink, mocking himself. It’s no wonder that Letterman, another ironist whose attitude perpetually commented on and upstaged his own jokes, booked him so often.
Today, crowd work is much easier to see, in specials but also all over social media, where it has become a critical part of marketing and selling tickets for young comics. But in the 1980s, unless you went to a club, you didn’t often find people turning “Where you from?” into spontaneous comedy, so it’s striking that in his 1986 HBO special, he included plenty of such basic interactions. “There’s a lot of parts of New Jersey that are very nice,” he said, responding to one guy from the state. “I can’t think of any right now.”
As early as 1978, he opened sets with a touch of hostility, looking up and asking, “Could you make these lights brighter? I’d like to go blind.”
Nothing on video displays his stature as much as a 90-minute show celebrating the 10th anniversary of Catch a Rising Star that aired on HBO in 1982. It’s a terrific portrait of New York comedy at the time, with a long bill including Andy Kaufman, Billy Crystal, Rita Rudner and David Brenner, along with the singer Pat Benatar, who was managed by the club’s owner, Rick Newman.
Belzer introduces them all, keeping things just sarcastic enough to prevent anyone from taking themselves seriously. Once Joe Piscopo finished a Frank Sinatra impression in full costume and makeup, Belzer marveled: “What an honor. What a surprise. What a man. What a toupée.”
At the end, Robin Williams heckled Belzer from the crowd, before going onstage and improvising a series of scenes to close out the night. Whereas Belzer was relatively unknown to the mainstream then, Williams was a giant television star and powerhouse live performer, frenetic and wildly unpredictable. Williams riffed punch lines effortlessly, but Belzer kept up and matched him, line by line. That some don’t land only adds gravitas to the feat, since it proves this was not an act polished for HBO but a real attempt to translate high-wire improv to television.
This ephemeral work is not the part of comedy you tend to see in movies or specials, but when done well live, it can be thrilling. And part of the job of the MC is to be alert to the value of spontaneous moments. Belzer understood this as well as anyone.
“The greatest thing for me is when I make the audience laugh in 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’m hearing the joke the same time they are.”