THE BULLETPROOF COMEDIAN

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Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 31, 1997; 12:02 AM

BALTIMORE -- Richard Belzer may be a big-deal prime-time television star, in his fifth season as the soulfully deadpan Detective John Munch on NBC's celebrated "Homicide: Life on the Street." But so what?

He hasn't done his stand-up routine since May, and hasn't regularly plied the trade for a good five years.

"I'm very rusty -- and, for me, uncharacteristically nervous," he says, worrying about his performances tonight through Sunday at the Improv in Washington. When Belzer is cooking, comically speaking, he can take his native hostility, acrid cynicism and conspiratorial turn of mind, spice the confection with keen intelligence and unprintable Anglo-Saxonisms, and whip the whole thing into gales of laughter.

When he's not, he can still take pride in being the sort of comedian who, as a critic once noted, leaves his audience wondering whether he liked them.

A tall wraith of a man dressed entirely in black (he's 6 feet 1 and weighs 150 pounds), he addresses today's audience (a reporter and a photographer) through black-rimmed glasses. "My skills come from going on every night," he says in a tone of suppressed hysteria. "When I was the emcee at Catch a Rising Star in Manhattan, I was working five, six, seven nights a week, from 9 o'clock to 2 or 3 in the morning, so it wasn't hard for me to go onstage. Whereas now it will be . . . " -- he trails off. "I'm a little nervous," he repeats.

He stares down into the abyss. Well, actually, it's a cheese omelet with a side of sliced tomatoes. But judging from the look on his razor-thin face, there is something dark and unsettling about it.

So how much funny material has Belzer stored for the winter?

"Don't pressure me," he replies. "I have little notebooks that I write things in, and a little tape recorder that I can speak four or five words into. Other comedians like to write down their jokes word for word. I have to come onstage and just start talking about what the idea is, and then I find it on my feet. Like: Elvis was Jewish -- did you know that? Elvis's mother was Jewish. Her mother was Jewish. So then I can do something on Elvis's bar mitzvah and what that would have been like." Belzer belts out a Hebrew prayer as the King might have done it: "Baruch" -- (pout) -- "Atah" -- (snarl) -- "Adonai."

His table mates laugh. But the jokester seems to be dead serious concerning his claims for the heritage of Elvis's mother. He smiles a little self-satisfied smile when one of his listeners asks a series of skeptical questions, and solemnly raises his right hand to swear to the truth. "Check it out," he dares.

(Well, Elvis's mom, Gladys Smith Presley, according to published reports, may have had a Jew or two among her ancestors -- not her mother, though, and not her grandmother either -- and the King did put a Star of David on her gravestone. But Belzer's bald assertion is a huuuge stretch.)

He also claims that onetime House majority leader Hale Boggs, who disappeared in 1972 in an airplane over Alaska, was chauffeured to the airport for the ill-fated trip by "a young Bill Clinton."

(This, by most accounts, is absolutely true. Clinton was a Texas coordinator for George McGovern's presidential campaign when Boggs passed through San Antonio on his way to Alaska and met the future president. Belzer, by the way, is not a Clinton fan. "I think anybody who wants to be president when they're 10 years old is mentally ill," he says good-naturedly. "He has sold out the liberal movement and he's sold out the progressive movement. He's a contemptible piece of {expletive} as far as I'm concerned.")


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