Here’s Why Young Richard Belzer Couldn’t Get on ‘SNL’ or ‘The Tonight Show’

‘I could have been my own worst enemy’
Here’s Why Young Richard Belzer Couldn’t Get on ‘SNL’ or ‘The Tonight Show’

Richard Belzer should have been a bigger comedy star, and in the 1970s, it sure seemed like things were headed that way. As the entrenched emcee at New York’s Catch A Rising Star comedy club, he was the venue’s “resident rock star and emblem of cool,” according to Richard Zoglin’s Comedy at the EdgeSo why did the club’s other comics like Jerry SeinfeldBilly Crystal and Paul Reiser find earlier success on talk shows and sitcoms? 

Belzer had a few things working against him. One, ironically, was his gift for crowd work, “in-your-face, X-rated ad-libs that could strike fear into the heart of anybody who made the mistake of getting up to go to the restroom.” That material played great in a club but you can’t berate the audience at The Tonight Show — you need actual prepared bits. He also ran afoul of other comics for cocaine-fueled rants (according to those standing by like Reiser and Bill Maher) that kept them waiting well past their scheduled stage time. 

Belzer admitted as much in David Steinberg’s Inside Comedy. “One time, I was introducing an act, and this was the record,” he boasted. “Because people used to complain, ‘He takes too long between the acts.’ You know, fuck that. So, one night, I did 58 minutes.”

Lorne Michaels scouted Catch a Rising Star to cast his new show, Saturday Night Live. “So I befriended him, and he told me what he was doing,” explained Belzer. “And at that time, I was in the National Lampoon show, with John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. And I introduced Lorne to that world. So John and everybody got the show. But me. And I was even there when people were auditioning, sitting next to Lorne. We went out into the hall, and I said, ‘Why not me?’ And this is what he said, and I’ll never forget this as long as I fucking live. He actually said to me, ‘Well, you’re too funny.’ You’re too funny.”

That’s Belzer’s version. According to Comedy on the Edge, Michaels passed because he was wary of Belzer’s legendary drug use. Instead, Michaels enlisted the comedian to warm up the SNL audience before shows.

“I’ve never told this story before,” Belzer told Steinberg, “but after the first one or two (warm-ups), the guys in the crew were mumbling, ‘Belzer’s funnier than half the guys here.’ And that kind of got out. And then, Don Pardo resented me doing the warm-up — he was threatened. But John, my ‘brother’ John Belushi, got me to do sketches. He tried to keep me there. John found out I wasn’t making what the rest of the cast was making, and he threatened to quit. That was John.”

There are a few things in Belzer’s story that raise an eyebrow. Venerable announcer Pardo was threatened by the warm-up comic? The two jobs don’t have anything to do with one another. Belushi threatened to quit Saturday Night Live because the guy loosening up the crowd wasn’t getting the same paycheck as the show’s actual performers? Crew members might have believed Belzer was the funniest, but like Michaels passing him over for being too hilarious, little of the comic’s defensive explanation passes the smell test. 

For several years, Belzer also had trouble cracking The Tonight Show, according to Comedy on the Edge. The comic admittedly used drugs as part of his comic fuel (“Cocaine makes you talk. Comedians talk,” he’d say. “Cocaine gives you more chances you’ll say something funny.”) That gave him an edge that was too sharp for 1970s Carson. “He was not someone who was considered a safe booking,” explained Peter Lassally, the show’s producer. Sometimes Belzer would sabotage himself by going extra X-rated when a talent scout would come to check him out. “I could have been my own worst enemy,” he admitted.

Belzer eventually got The Tonight Show in the early 1980s, and as America caught up with his act, he became a late-night staple with David Letterman and Jay Leno. The irony? The man funnier than half the guys on Saturday Night Live is now remembered as the grim Detective Munch, playing the character for 22 seasons on Homicide and Law & Order: SVU. While the role gave Belzer a chance to show off his dramatic chops, he still got to zing acidic one-liners like, “Does dealing with sexual deviants every day affect me? The answer is no. Just ask my blow-up doll.”


Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?