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‘Uncontrollable Wit’

An interview with <i>Law and Order</i>’s Richard Belzer

Richard Belzer spent the 1970s as a groundbreaking stand-up comic, serving as the very first audience warm-up act for Saturday Night Live, where he became known as one of New York’s most acerbic and hilarious voices. In the past two decades, “The Belz” has covered new ground, as Detective John Munch on the long-running television series Law and Order. In fact, he has broken a television record, portraying the same character on more series than any one actor in TV history. With Munch’s current home, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, returning on Wednesday night, we caught up with Belzer, 66, to talk about his long-running creation, and his history in comedy.

Q: Are you gonna pop up on the new series, Law and Order: Los Angeles, and goose up your record?

A: The bosses have assured me that it’s in the works. It only makes sense for Munch to maybe drop a prisoner off out there and give them the Munch treatment.

Q: That will be show number 11 for Munch?

A: There’s some dispute. I did a pilot for Spike Lee on NBC called The Mayor that didn’t air, but I played Munch in that, so that’s an asterisk. I guess technically it’s 11, but if you add that pilot, it might be 12. But I don’t take steroids, so my record stands.

Q: I don’t really see John Munch as an LA kind of guy.

A: That’s why he’s delivering something and then leaving. He’s New York come to LA — and then back.

Q: You’ve been playing John Munch for almost two decades now. How has he deepened for you over the years?

A: He’s still Lenny Bruce with a badge. He says what he thinks. If anything, he’s more cynical than he was, if that’s possible.

Q: You’re a big fan of film noir. What do those movies offer you that today’s films may not?

A: Those were all in black and white, and there’s a whole different psychology to them, an existential hopelessness that happened after World War II. We had the s**t kicked out of us emotionally, and a lot of filmmakers knew that things would never be the same after the horrors of war.

Q: You were the warm-up comic for the first season of SNL, and you knew and often performed with much of that classic cast. Do you think there’s anything happening in comedy today that honors that tradition?

A: It’s a hard comparison, because those things are a result of their time. It’s 2010 now. SNL came out in the ’70s. It’s a different zeitgeist. It’s hard to re-create it, just as it would be hard to do a black-and-white noir film now. The culture’s different.

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in comedy between the ’70s and today?

A: There are so many different choices now. In a way, it’s a little better, because of the Internet. You have people that would never have been on television before who can write, shoot and produce their own thing. So it’s kind of exciting to see so many different people trying to do comedy, and many of them are good. They never would have been seen 10 years ago.

Q: Did you come from a funny family?

A: My grandmother was very funny. It skipped a generation.

Q: So, did you have private jokes with your grandmother that went over your parents’ heads?

A: Not that so much as she was looser and funnier than they were, so it was nice to be around her.

Q: Were you rebellious as a kid?

A: I was thrown out of every school I ever went to.

Q: Thrown out for what?

A: Uncontrollable wit.

Q: I didn’t realize that was a punishable offense.

A: In my day it was.

Q: You were also briefly in the military. You left that early, too.

A: I was discharged under honorable conditions for being too funny to carry a gun.

Q: That seems improbable.

A: They asked me politely to leave. Under honorable conditions.

Q: How long were you in?

A: About seven or eight months.

Q: Was there anything positive you took from the experience?

A: Yes. I met a lot of people I never would have [otherwise] met from different parts of the country. I had top secret clearance. I was trained as a radio intercept operator.

Q: What exactly is that?

A: Monitoring enemy codes.

Q: I would think that’s fascinating.

A: Sitting with headsets all day? It sounds more romantic than it is.

Q: I know you used to play a lot of basketball. Do you still?

A: I do. I had a court built at my house in France.

Q: How often do you play?

A: Every day, weather permitting.

Q: Do you find enough people to play with?

A: I play by myself. One of my dogs gets rebounds, hits the ball back to me.

Q: How are your knees holding up at 66?

A: I don’t play against anyone. I just shoot around all day. If you stay active, the knees stay well-oiled.

Q: What do you find are the keys to feeling younger than you are?

A: I think keeping the mind, as well as the body, active. Learning new things has been proven to actually build new brain cells — to take up something you didn’t know before, not a permutation of something you already know. And, of course, daily, if possible, physical activity. Exercise is the fountain of youth, I believe.

Q: So what are some of the new things you’ve learned lately?

A: I’m studying ancient history — Roman history.

Q: How did you become interested in that?

A: Living in Europe. I’ve always been fascinated by antiquities, and everywhere you go the Romans have left their mark, architecturally or in other ways. So I’ve always been fascinated by the Romans and the Caesars. There are remnants of Roman conquests everywhere — bridges and walls and all kinds of things have been affected by them for 2,000 years. I find it fascinating.