Success and a Bout with Cancer Have Mellowed Richard Belzer, but His Wit Is as Sharp as Ever

updated 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Cinemax calls it The Richard Belzer Show and consequently Belzer, the soon-to-be-not-quite-so-unknown comedian, gets to act out some of his more bizarre paranoid fantasies. Today he is on trial in a Kafkaesque courtroom with a noose dangling from the ceiling and huge accusatory eyes staring at him from the walls. The jury is composed of 12 cardboard Richard Nixons, and Belzer's lawyer, played by co-star Tom Leopold, is babbling about how unattractive they look. "Tom, don't make fun of the jury," says Belzer.

Good advice, no doubt, but astonishing coming from Belzer. If an audience is a comedian's jury, then Belzer has been insulting the jury for more than a decade, which is one reason this very funny man didn't become a star much sooner. Belzer's comedy has always had a dangerously sharp and cutting edge. As an "insult comic," Belzer is to Don Rickles what a buzz saw is to pinking shears. Fans of the "old Belzer"—circa 1981—recall a manic performer who did impressions of "Menachem Begin on Acid," who jumped into the audience knocking over tables to battle hecklers, who uttered lines like...well, lines they don't print in magazines. Which is not to say that he wasn't funny. He was. He gained a cult following among some of the biggest names in comedy, including Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase.

Despite such plaudits, Belzer remained almost unknown for a decade—the resident genius of Manhattan's Catch A Rising Star (a tryout club for comics) who never rose to stardom and frequently verged on starvation. Unlike some comics he got plenty of respect; he just didn't make any money. "I think people were afraid of me," says Belzer, now 40, looking back on his days as an enfant terrible. "When I'm onstage now, I'm not as threatening, even though I do basically the same thing. Maybe it's because I'm more inwardly resolved and it doesn't come across so mean-spirited as it did in the past."

The bitterness of Belzer's early humor grew out of the frustration of his life. He grew up poor in a Bridgeport, Conn, housing project, and his parents were not at all shy about administering corporal punishment. In self-defense, he turned to comedy. "If I made my mother laugh," he says, "she wouldn't hit me." Belzer's wise-guy wit got him into trouble during his mercifully brief stints in college and the Army. He worked a string of dead-end jobs, including census taker, jewelry salesman and obit writer in the late '60s, and then, after his father committed suicide and Richard's first marriage failed, he experimented briefly with heroin. In the early '70s, again in self-defense, he returned to comedy, working the stand-up clubs. Not surprisingly, his humor reflected a world seen not through rose-colored glasses but through his now-trademark black shades. "The Marquis de Sade as a game-show host," as Robin Williams described him.

Now, The Belz has "matured," as he puts it. "I don't think I've mellowed, I think I've grown up." Perhaps this maturation came with success: In the last few years he won parts in movies (Scarface, Author! Author!), appeared as a regular on Thicke of the Night and, performed his routine on two Cinemax specials. That cable exposure led to his current six-part series, a mix of stand-up shtick and studio sketches. But some of Belzer's new peace of mind is the product of a less happy occurrence: Last summer he learned he had cancer. Although he is reticent about the details of his illness, he talks optimistically about his cure: "I found out about it on a Friday and went into the hospital on Saturday," he says. "I was operated on and had 16 radiation treatments and I'm totally cured. My vision of life has improved. I'm very happy."

It might be his success of late or beating the Big C or simply the cathartic effect of a thousand nights of venting his spleen at Catch, but The Belz is a new man. In the old days, the twice-divorced comic caroused with self-destructive abandon. Now he meditates and exercises and rests at his Manhattan apartment. The high priest of the put-down speaks softly and has nice things to say about almost everybody. "I sound like one of those bad Oscar speeches," he says.

Fortunately, Belzer's relentlessly upbeat mood has not blunted his comic sword. "The edge is still there," he says. "I just don't attack the audience." These days he uses himself as a target. As the makeup man for the Cinemax show powders the star's face, Belzer breaks into song: "I'm so vain, I probably think this show is about me." Between scenes, Belzer retreats to his trailer. That's right, the former starving comic is now star enough to rate his own trailer—complete with cheese and crackers and the mineral water he now drinks. Then, in the space of maybe three minutes, he does impressions of Jerry Lewis, Ed Sullivan, Lon Chaney and a 15-year-old boy with a prepubescent voice trying to play William Jennings Bryan in a high school production of Inherit the Wind.

And all that is just fooling around. A production assistant knocks at the trailer door. "We're ready for Richard," she calls in.

"Yeah," says Tom Leopold, "but is America ready for Richard?"

After a decade of struggle, the answer to that question finally might be yes.

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