Richard Belzer

Friday, February 28, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2003, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by an actor and author, Richard Belzer. Great to have you here.

Richard Belzer: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.

Paulson: It’s kind of tough to figure out how to describe you in two or three words because you’ve done just about everything.

Belzer: Excited about life, real, daring … . Well, I just unfortunately have done a lot of different things where I had to make a living. I’ve been a stand-up comic and a writer and a dock worker and a teacher —

Paulson: I understand —

Belzer: — and play piano —

Paulson: — you actually —

Belzer: — trailer salesman.

Paulson: Some of those pay better than others.

Belzer: Yes, obviously.

Paulson: I understand you actually started as a newspaper reporter.

Belzer: I was a newspaper reporter in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And I started out as all newspaper reporters start out: doing obituaries. That was the first thing you did at a big city newspaper. And then eventually I got to cover other things. I remember my first stab at trying to be a real journalist. I covered — it was during the Vietnam War — and I went to the funeral of a local kid who had been killed in the war, and I covered the funeral, and then I got back to my office. I started — I wrote, “A cold wind blew on Bridgeport today as they buried…” — you know? So the editor said, “What are you, goddamn Ernest Hemingway? What was his name? Where?” It was just like — so that was very unartistic.

Paulson: How long did you stay a reporter?

Belzer: Let’s see. I was a reporter for about three or four years. And I was a freelance writer, and then I started acting. And then I went into stand-up comedy. And then I started doing television.

Paulson: I’m curious, as somebody who has voiced opinions now and then about the news media, what did you learn about the field of journalism as a reporter that maybe most other people don’t see?

Belzer: About journalism?

Paulson: Yeah.

Belzer: Um, it’s astounding to me how we go through these periods in journalism where there are brave, aggressive reporters who have these revelatory stories and do their research and, and find the material. And then we go through these periods, like now, where — I think it’s more chilling now than it is perhaps since World War II, in terms of the, the media not being aggressive about what’s really happening for fear of imperiling some national security agenda. And it’s so bizarrely naive and fitting the interests of the corporations that own the networks that it’s chilling. I mean, during the Reagan years, I was censored. There were jobs I didn’t get. And there were things that were cancelled. And I was, you know, I wasn’t vicious, but I was just — had some anti-Reagan material in my act.

Paulson: And you felt the backlash.

Belzer: I did, and directly. And, you know — but you know what scares me also — obviously I’m scared these days — is that people take it upon … the self-censorship is the most chilling thing to me. I think the networks are doing that now. And a lot of the mainstream press is just reticent to talk about a lot of things that are out there that are true, you know, like, after 9/11, the 27 members of the bin Laden family were picked up all over the United States and flung out of the country. I mean, why don’t we hear more about that? Or, or Putin telling Dan Rather that the American establishment — the government had a sit-down dinner with him and told him exactly how they’re going to carve up Iraq and who gets what oil. And, and so, I mean, these are things I’m not making up. I mean, I wrote about conspiracy because people got tired of me going on and on about it at dinner, so I just finally put it down.

Paulson: Well —

Belzer: What I’ve found — excuse me.

Paulson: Sure.

Belzer: What I’ve found is, you don’t have to make anything up.

Paulson: Well, I want to talk about that book. But first, let’s go back to the bin Laden…

Belzer: Sure.

Paulson: The 27 relatives — because I think it’s a —

Belzer: My figures may be wrong; it’s 24 or 27 but —

Paulson: I’ve heard that sort of. You don’t know if it’s urban legend. I’ve never read it in Time or Newsweek. Where did you get it from, and why are you so confident?

Belzer: See, this is what scares me. You’re an intelligent guy. This is a great show. You’re well-informed. And you think that might be an urban legend. That’s how bad the mainstream press is, that you don’t know that, that that’s not true.

Paulson: But how do you know it’s true?

Belzer: There are multiple sources. It was in The London Times. It was in The New York Times. Other people have written and spoken about it. It was in The Guardian. It was in, um, it was also in the USA TODAY, I believe. See, here’s what I.F. Stone taught me. And I was with Gore Vidal the other day, who also loves this quote. I.F. Stone said, “It’s all in the public domain.” He read 10 newspapers a day. He, he read speeches. He looked at archive — you don’t have to be a crazy conspiracy nut like me. I mean, I’m an actor, I have a lot of downtime. So, I read a lot. And it drives me crazy, but it’s a short drive in my case. But anyone out there, especially with the Internet now, you can find — like if you just type in what I said, the bin Laden family and them fleeing America, you’ll find verifiable sources that are, you know, credible.

Paulson: So if that’s what happened, what — why wouldn’t Time or Newsweek report that?

Belzer: Well, that, that’s a good question. That’s again the self-censorship. And do the American people want to know that George Bush Sr., for years had a … since the ’70s … was doing business with the bin Laden family? I mean, that is kind of known. That’s not urban legend. That’s reality. But it’s being played down, and, and you know, I don’t know why. I mean, is it that self-censorship? What, I really, I’m obviously speechless — ’cause it’s a scary thing.

Paulson: And many critics of the press say it’s a leftist bias. But that’s truly not the case, isn’t it?

Belzer: What, the press is left?

Paulson: The press is not left-leaning.

Belzer: Well, Eric Alterman just wrote a book called What Liberal Media? This is … this one … Bill Kristol and all these other conservative spokespersons have admitted openly and occasionally on television, on the radio, or in print that that is a myth that they created. And they laugh about saying, “Oh, it’s a liberal media.” Clearly the media is not liberal. I mean, the five biggest voices in radio are borderline fascist. Really. I mean, sue me; I don’t care. Fascism —

Paulson: They can sue you, that’d be better.

Belzer: Yeah me. Sue me; that’s fine, not PBS. That’s Richard Belzer speaking. By the way, fascism was invented by Mussolini, as we know. It means government for the corporation, the corporate state. So when I say, “fascist,” it’s not that vicious.

Paulson: This is, this is an educational program.

Belzer: I’m not patronizing you. I don’t want people to misinterpret when I say, “fa–”— I’m not just slinging it around. I mean it in the literal sense.

Paulson: But, I think it’s true that a lot of reporters are liberals. I mean, when you were a young reporter, I was a young reporter. We had no money.

Belzer: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: There’s a time in your life when you tilt at windmills and you tend to be more liberal than conservative, but you’re not in any real power, right?

Belzer: Yeah, I agree. I agree. There was a time in journalism where a lot of liberal, so-called liberal people went into journalism. But today the so-called liberals like Dan Rather — is that a liberal? Is Sam Donaldson a liberal? Are these liberals? I mean, that’s astounding to me. As Michael Moore said the other night, you know, most of the people in America are way to the left of all the Democratic candidates, ’cause any time you take a poll, they want a better environment. They want — the desire for the death penalty is going down. And, you know, people want health care. They will help the indigent. So, you know, the fact that our present government has been hijacked by several dozen white intellectual right-wing guys who, you know, have grants—

Paulson: Why aren’t you—

Belzer: — gets my dander up.

Paulson: Why aren’t you concerned that this will affect your career? I mean, the Reagan remarks cost you.

Belzer: Well, you know what? At this point, I don’t care, fortunately because I, I, I could flee to another country if I had to. Because, no, I’ve learned — I’ve met in my life some people who have done some very brave, dangerous things, people who were in the military, in government, who are in various places — and I asked them that same question. And certain people … if, if they don’t bother because they’re not worried about it. And like Michael said the other night, Michael Moore said that someone asked him, “A corporation put out your movie, and you’re against corporations.” These corporations are so smug and so patronizing to the American people that they think, “Yeah, you know, let him go out there. They’re still going to buy our products and be somnambulant and not really be aggressive about preserving their democracy or their individual freedom.” So—

Paulson: I want to make sure we save some time to talk about your book about UFOs, JFK, and Elvis.

Belzer: Yes.

Paulson: I want to loop back to the start of your career. You were a part of “The Groove Tube.”

Belzer: Yes.

Paulson: Which was an amazing piece of work, really, for its time. You talk about the modern era of comedy, and a lot of people give credit to “Saturday Night Live.” Or they’ll mention “Fridays,” or—

Belzer: Right.

Paulson: — but that preceded all of that, didn’t it?

Belzer: Yeah, at the risk of being immodest, that was the granddaddy of, of these kinds of shows. And what it was, was me and — Chevy Chase was a part of the early days, too. When video first became available — remember the reel-to-reel video?

Paulson: Mm-hmm.

Belzer: My friend bought a camera. We just started doing — filming bits and stuff. And then we put together an actual show that played in a 90-seat theater in Manhattan off of Third Avenue and, I think, 63rd Street. You went downstairs, and there were three television monitors in the front. It was, like, literally underground television. This was before cable. This is, like, 1970, ’71. And we were doing satires of film and commercials. And Lorne Michaels has said that’s been an influence on him and “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV,” and it was pretty — we didn’t realize how daring we were.

Paulson: What did you learn about the kind of comedy that needed to be made then? I mean, things had changed. It wasn’t Milton Berle anymore.

Belzer: Yeah, that’s a good point. Well, the thing was that just — my personality is — I’ve always been very rebellious, very flexibly questioning things, making fun of them, and imitating authority figures, and seeing the absurdity from a very early age. And so it, it just — I guess the timing was right. The ’60s were coming along. People were being more expressive. And my personality just — it wasn’t that I was an innovator or heroic. It was just that that was my personality. And it luckily fit that period when there was, you know, rebellion and questioning and, you know, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.

Paulson: Of course, a lot of people watching this show are familiar with your work as Detective John Munch—

Belzer: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: — which has been a remarkable role in that it’s used in series after series.

Belzer: Yeah.

Paulson: It bridges series.

Belzer: Yes.

Paulson: And how did, how did you come into that role?

Belzer: This is a great story, if I may. One day I was on the “Howard Stern Show” — and he’s an old friend of mine — and Barry Levinson happened to be driving to his office. And they were casting this show called “Homicide: Life on the Street.” And there were nine people in the ensemble, and everyone was cast but this character Munch. They couldn’t find John Munch. So — and I wasn’t even up for the part. I didn’t audition for it. I didn’t even, you know, know anything about it actually. So Barry heard it and said, “Let’s bring Richard in.” And so I went in, and I read for him. And he looked — he was, he was very surprised that I could act, which I guess is a compliment and an insult at the same time, ’cause he was, like, looking at me during the, during the audition like, “Oh.” So he said, “I want you to read the whole script and come back, and, and we’ll do some more.” So I couldn’t leave the studio or the set, I mean, the office because they didn’t want the script off the lot. So they said, “Go in this room and read it.” So I went into the room; I saw a stack of videotapes, and they said Munch, Munch. So it was all the other actors’ auditions for the role.

Paulson: Wow.

Belzer: So you know, like, in “Spy Versus Spy” in Mad magazine, I opened the door. I looked out. I closed it. And I watched like 10 other actors read for the part. And the thing that struck me was that none of them played it funny. They all played it like, you know, they’re really intense in that over-the-top kind of cop thing. So — which relieved me because I think the thing that Barry was intrigued about was, I brought humor to it. And to make a long story short, that show was — went seven years. And then when it was cancelled, Dick, Dick Wolf, who does “Law & Order,” was looking for someone to take Benjamin Bratt’s place. And I said to my manager, “What if Belzer — Munch moves to New York and partners with Jerry Orbach?” But they’d already cast Jesse Martin. And then I heard that they’re doing these other shows, “Special Victims Unit.” I said, “What if Munch is on that?” And so they called, and — so the show had already been licensed. They had already been cast. But Dick Wolf liked the idea, and they worked it out with NBC and Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana and the guy that wrote the Homicide book and a French corporation that owned — I mean, it was the most astounding deal, how they made it ’cause the character had to go from one show to another. So anyway, it worked out. And then Munch has since done the “Twilight Zone” as Munch and “Beat,” another show by Tom, the other “Law & Order.”

Paulson: Is there any precedent for that at all?

Belzer: No, I’m in the Smithsonian. It’s the only dramatic character to be in five different shows.

Paulson: Fascinating.

Belzer: Yeah.

Paulson: Well, clearly they thought Munch brought something.

Belzer: Yeah, you know, I’m so flattered by it because if I were, if I were a cop, I’d be very close to how he — I mean, it would be impossible for me. But because they allow him to be a dissident. They allow him to be very opinionated and, and well-read and, you know, a conspiracy theorist — but a, but a good cop, and so it’s fun.

Paulson: You raise the conspiracy theorist thing. And that’s some of your identification — public identification. So how much is Munch Belzer?

Belzer: Well, you know, it’s very close. I mean, I try — the writers now know that there are certain subjects that I would love to talk about — and, and be truthful about, even if it’s humorous. I mean, that to me has been my driving force — is that basically I’m an entertainer. So, you know, when I’m onstage, I don’t want to be pedantic. But I do, in a subversive way.

Paulson: You know, I’ve known your work since “The Groove Tube.” There’s a certain identity when I think of your work. And yet when I talked to some other people, it’s just immediately “Munch.”

Belzer: Uh-huh.

Paulson: This must’ve opened up an amazingly different audience for you.

Belzer: To the point where people that don’t know I was a stand-up comic, which I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But that’s why I’m going back onstage next month actually.

Paulson: You’ve written a couple of books. One of which is How to Be a Stand-Up Comic.

Belzer: Yes.

Paulson: How, how do you become a stand-up comic? What advice do you give?

Belzer: Well, the book is, is part satirical and part real information, and the only thing that I could say if anyone wants to be a stand-up comic is, you have to be able to make strangers laugh, not just your friends and your family, which a lot of people are really good at. We all have funny relatives. But I’ve seen brilliantly funny people go onstage and just, you know, be mortified. It’s, it’s something that is, you know, a bit masochistic at first ’cause you have to be prepared to fail. But if you think you’re funny and you can speak in your own voice, then by all means inflict it on yourself, I would say.

Paulson: Any advice on what material to touch and what not to touch?

Belzer: Um, you’re asking the wrong guy, because aside from, you know, Nazis and pedophiles, I think that nothing is off — out of bounds.

Paulson: Well, there’s somebody — some commentator was saying, “You know, of course I’m doing a lot of jokes about the president. This is a great time of national stress. And there’s a war on terrorism.” And he was basically defining it, I thought, in almost a marketing way—

Belzer: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: — in that if it’s a joke that people won’t laugh at, that’s a bad product. And it’s not in your interests as a comedian to tell that joke.

Belzer: That’s — you know, I understand that for survival. It’s very self-serving. But at the risk of being immodest, I did this bit about Reagan on Reaganomics that at first would get very — like, like, sometimes a hiss and maybe some laughs. And as time went on — and I did the bit for years, I’m ashamed to say this — if I write something good, I keep it. I think of them as songs: I sing them over and over again. The bit got more and more laughs until the point where an HBO executive said, “You got to, you know, do that.” In one of my first HBO specials, they made me do the Reagan bit. So, it went from — so, I’m not saying everybody has to be brave to be a comedian. But, you know, you could throw in something that may not get a laugh but will provoke some thought and couch it in with your real funny stuff. It’s no, you know—

Paulson: And, of course, you don’t have to have a unanimous vote on a joke either.

Belzer: No, I, I, you know, a critic once said about me, “Richard Belzer’s the only comedian I’ve ever seen who the audience leaves wondering if he liked them.” I’m kind of proud of that.

Paulson: That’s a, that’s a great line. So we come to this book UFOs, JFK, and Elvis.

Belzer: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe.

Paulson: That’s right. I love it. And, and it’s a heck of an image to have. I mean, you know, when you see references to you in print, it’s “conspiracy nut” or—

Belzer: Right, right.

Paulson: That’s something you embrace? Clearly you do; you wrote the book that reinforces the image.

Belzer: Right. Well, I wrote the book because I, you know — first of all, the word “nut” obviously, you know, is offensive to me, but I’ll take it. You know, the thing that people in this country for some reason are allergic to the word “conspiracy.” But tell me something that isn’t a conspiracy. For — my philosophy is, I automatically — whatever it is, is conspiracy until it’s proven not to be. It’s never the other way around. This country was a conspiracy. These guys got together and, and had a revolution. I mean, everything that you could think of from Iran Contra to Watergate to things that happened in World War II. I mean, I don’t have to go on and on. But you know what I mean.

Paulson: Sure.

Belzer: It’s something about that word that has been demonized and marginalized for whatever reason by, you know—

Paulson: To the extent that if there were indeed a conspiracy, it would be hard to report it because people would laugh at you.

Belzer: Yeah, you say conspiracy, you think of people who are saying, “Oh, there were aliens on the grassy knoll,” which might be true.

Paulson: What’s the first conspiracy that got your attention? Was it the JFK shooting? Because I can remember—

Belzer: The first conspiracy. You know what, I have to admit with the Kennedy assassination, I didn’t really think about it at first as a conspiracy. And then some books — about a year or so later, some stuff started coming out that really blew my mind. And then it kind of went away, because of the civil rights movement and Dr. King and all that. And then when the Watergate break-in happened, it was all the same people that were at the Bay of Pigs and involved in that. And it was like that’s when my brain just really exploded, and I was incredibly radicalized if I wasn’t already and realized that there’s a lot more going on here than we’ve ever imagined or are being told. And that’s when I started studying World War II and how we got to be where we are and what is America all about.

Paulson: The period after the JFK assassination, the Warren Commission — I can remember Mark Lane’s books came out.

Belzer: Right.

Paulson: And then there was an early movie called “Executive Action” which—

Belzer: Yeah, which was a kind of a fon— it was not a good movie, but it was interesting.

Paulson: And then there came layer — and at that point, you sort of, you were intrigued by the theories. But then came layer after layer—

Belzer: Yeah, yeah.

Paulson: — of author, and then along comes a movie like “JFK.”

Belzer: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: What’s your — which is somewhat fictionalized; makes a lot of the same points. What’s your take on that movie?

Belzer: To me, “JFK” is one of the most astounding events in cinema history because, outside of “Birth of a Nation,” I have never seen a film — and even more so in some ways than “Birth of Nation,” this was a film that was vilified beyond belief before it was released. Scripts were stolen. Obvious — there are, there are journalists who will work for the CIA — and I’m not making that up, I can prove that — who are in the mainstream press. And I’m not saying they’re CIA agents, but they, they do take information from the government, and they do favors for the government. And many of those people wrote these most, these vicious things about Oliver — whatever you think of Oliver Stone. But to make a long story short, there’s — 80% of that movie is really on the money. He did make some stuff up — but, you know — which perhaps he shouldn’t have done because the real information on this case, which, you know, I’ve studied for many years, is just astounding and more astounding than any fiction you could possibly imagine.

Paulson: Oliver Stone was on this show, and just listening to him talk about that period, it was like he was stunned that a movie could create that kind of upheaval.

Belzer: It was amazing, and, you know, people like George Will and other people — just the oral pornography that came out of their mouths — and, and George Will actually said that, “Anybody who believes there was a conspiracy in the John Kennedy murder is equal to a Holocaust denier.” That, to me, is one of the most offensive things I’ve ever heard.

Paulson: What theory do you lean—

Belzer: I offend easily. What? I’m sorry.

Paulson: What theory do you lean toward?

Belzer: Well, people say to me, “OK, who killed JFK?” My answer is, “Who didn’t kill JFK?” He was despised by the CIA. He was despised by the Pentagon. He was despised by the Cuban exiles. The oil billionaires detested him. The bank … the bankers loathed him. Just to — I mean, I could obviously talk about this for the next five hours. But I’ll give you my brief — because it’s PBS and I support you — I’ll keep it real short. Here’s what I think happened pretty much: Kennedy wanted to change the way America deals with money. He did not want to have a Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve borrows from private banks. So we’re constantly in debt, paying huge interest. So the country’s literally owned by private banks. Kennedy wanted to print money through the Treasury and use the silver standard and not rely on the Federal Reserve. And he actually started printing money. I think it was something like $200-and-whatever million actually got printed. Now, if you think about that, if he does that, that costs private banks over time not billions of dollars, but trillions of dollars. And when you have that kind of money involved, your, your, your life’s in peril. And I think that those interests along with the oil interests — and I’m not saying our government as an institution, but elements within the government conspired to — they couldn’t have it. They couldn’t have it. He had Dr. King in the White House. He was making peace with, with Khrushchev. He had a nuclear-test ban treaty. He wanted to scatter the CIA into a thousand pieces. He didn’t invade Cuba and give it back to the drug dealers and the, and the gambling interests. He was skimming the oil depletion allowance, which was 1% from the top, which cost the Hunts and the Murchisons billions of dollars. So, you know, he had a lot of enemies.

Paulson: And these details will be found in your book?

Belzer: They’re in my book, and they’re anywhere. You don’t need to and — I didn’t make any of that up.

Paulson: I’m curious—

Belzer: Honest.

Paulson: If I go into a bookstore—

Belzer: Yeah?

Paulson: What section of the books do I look for to buy this book?

Belzer: Oh, that? That’s a good question. In some places, it’s in the comedy section, unfortunately.

Paulson: That’s not a good thing, is it?

Belzer: No. In other places, it’s — it was in current events. It’s been moved around. That’s a good question. Unfortunately, it’s a lot — it’s in the comedy section a lot. But it is — you know, there’s a lot of funny stuff in it.

Paulson: I need to ask you about Richard Pryor. There was a remarkable salute to him at the Kennedy Center. And your remarks were particularly compelling and memorable. Clearly, Richard Pryor played a pretty important role in your life.

Belzer: Richard Pryor is the greatest stand-up comic who ever lived or who ever will live. He’s like Michelangelo or da Vinci. He defined the art form in a way that’s beyond anybody’s talent. And, and also on a personal note, when I first started the business, I was very political and very — what we would say, “dirty” — not dirty, but you know what I mean. And so I was, I was not a favorite of people wanting me to be on television. And I was going to audition for the “Tonight Show.” Finally someone — they convinced me, “You got to audition.” And I went up, and I cleaned up my act. And I did this routine, and I came offstage. And Richard was in the audience. And he said, “Who was that?” And he got really angry at me because he found out I was auditioning for the “Tonight Show” and that I diluted who I was and I cleaned it up. And, and I’ve known him for many, many years. And that to me was just one moment where I realized that — “Just be, you know, who you are.” And he’s been very supportive over the years. And I wish him well. He’s not feeling well these days. But he’s in our prayers. And, he’s just an artistic beacon beyond measure.

Paulson: So you took that advice to heart?

Belzer: Yeah, I did, and I did get on the “Tonight Show,” you know, after that. But I did something that I didn’t do that night that I felt didn’t compromise who I was. So everybody won.

Paulson: It’s been great visiting with you.

Belzer: Oh, it’s great. And it’s a great show, and I’m pleased to be here.

Paulson: Thank you so much.

Belzer: OK.

Paulson: Our guest today has been Richard Belzer.