Richard Pelzer had a ball on the relationship between the comic and the crowd

While Richard Belzer He stood up On “Late Night with David Letterman,” she always burst into the opening scenes of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” dancing onstage, looking like the life of the party in dark shades. As he approached the microphone, he noted engaging with the studio audience in a way you rarely see on television. More than once, “Are you in a good mood?” he asked. And waited for a joy. Then his tone changed: “Prove it.”

With that opening centerpiece, he turned the relationship between comedian and crowd on its head. The expectation was now on the people in the seats: Impress me.

Belzer, who died Sunday, was best known for playing a detective on television, but his acting career was built on a signature personality in comedy, a master of the glamorous crowd work that set the template for MC in his early days. Comedy Club. Mostly jackets and shirts low button, he cut a stylish image, spiky and louche. He can charm with the best of them, but unlike many artists, he doesn’t come across as desperate for your approval. A peculiarity of humor is that he understands that the line between annoyance and gratitude can easily blur.

Throughout the 1970s, he ran a hot show in New York clubs: Catch a Rising Star, stand-up’s answer to Studio 54. As he warmed up the crowd, he asked them where they came from and what they did. , establishing rapport and supremacy. Belzer continued to do so, long before Dave Chappelle dropped the mic at the end of shows.

If the crowd doesn’t laugh, he can lie down in a guilty plea: “Could you be a little quieter? Because I will have a nervous breakdown,” he said. And if someone shouts, pay attention. According to the humorous Jonathan Katz story, one night someone in the crowd exclaimed, “Nice jacket!” He shouted. And Belzer replied that he had come for sale in his mother’s genitalia.

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Belzer did not rise to fame as quickly as many of his peers, but he remained a cult figure with a wide influence on comedy. You can hear a clip of her singing in an act by Dennis Miller, who once referred to her as “The Dark Prince” of Catch a Rising Star, not to mention her use of the word “babe” as a nickname. Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton Partly inspired by Belzer (note the mirrors).

Even as an MC, Belzer was his own star attraction. He became famous for taking an incredibly long time to introduce a joke. In an interview for a yet-to-be-released documentary about him, Belzer recalled that it took him an hour and forty-five minutes to come up with the next comic. Writer Bill Scheft, who produced the film, said Belzer ad-libbed many of the lines, “which became stock MC lines for others.”

Few of Belzer’s live performances were recorded, but you can find traces online. An all-purpose showman who knows how to sing and dance, he even does bratfalls while juggling hipster poses. A wonderfully stupid bit, his hand stuck through his hair and his whole body dragged to the floor. He leaned heavily on extravagant recordings by Ronald Reagan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and especially Mick Jagger. There is a miracle Competition moment of the 2011 show “Green Room“In the middle of a conversation, Belzer gets into a “jogger-off” with the comic Rick Overton. He wins, and he always creates an impression of being a “peacock on acid.”

More than any joke, what stands out from Belzer’s deep dive into online humor is an attitude: impatient, sarcastic, friendly but quick-witted. “Yeah, well, sure,” came a percussive response as he ran into the crowd. These move-it-along interludes had a rhythm and a sound that was quintessentially New York. As he walks into a familiar compound, his voice goes from dry to dry to self-deprecating in the blink of an eye. Not surprisingly, Letterman, another controversialist, whose approach perpetually elevated opinion and his own jokes, recorded him frequently.

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Today, it’s easy to see crowd work in specials but also on social media, where it’s become an important part of marketing and selling tickets to young comics. But in the 1980s, unless you went to a club, you were asked, “Where are you from?” You don’t often see that return. In a spontaneous joke, it was his 1986 HBO special, he added a lot of such basic interactions. “Many parts of New Jersey are very nice,” he replied to a native of the state. “I can’t think of anything right now.”

as In early 1978he opened the sets with a touch of hostility, looked up and said, “Can you make these lights brighter? I want to be blind.

Nothing in the video shows his stature as much as celebrating the 90-minute show. Catch a Rising Star’s 10th Anniversary It first aired on HBO in 1982. A brilliant portrait of New York comedy at the time, it had a long bill with Andy Kaufman, Billy Crystal, Rita Rudner and David Brenner, along with singer Pat Benader, who was managed by the club’s owner. , Rick Newman.

Pelzer introduces them all, keeping things ridiculous enough to keep anyone from taking themselves seriously. As Joe Piscopo completed a Frank Sinatra look in full costume and makeup, Pelzer marveled: “What an honor. What a surprise. What a man. What a doobie.”

At the end, Robin Williams chased Belzer out of the crowd, took to the stage and improvised a series of scenes to close the night. While Belzer is a relative unknown to the mainstream, Williams is a huge TV star and powerhouse live performer, frenetic and wildly unpredictable. Williams effortlessly reefed punch lines, but Belzer continued to match him. That some didn’t land only adds gravitas to the achievement, as it proves that this isn’t a polished act for HBO, but a genuine attempt to translate high-wire development to television.

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This middle-of-the-road task isn’t the kind of comedy you see in movies or specials, but done well live, it’s thrilling. Part of the MC’s job is to be alert to the value of arbitrary moments. Belzer understood this too.

“The biggest thing for me is that I make the audience laugh in a moment that can only happen with that audience that night,” he said in a recent interview. “Sometimes I laugh with the audience because I hear the joke at the same time they are.”

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