Because of his 19 years portraying Detective John Munch on the various incarnations of “Law and Order” (first introduced on “Homicide: Life on the Street”), there might be people out there who don’t know that Richard Belzer was one of New York City’s hottest stand-ups of the 1970s and ’80s, and continues to keep his chops sharp with roasts, radio appearances, and comic venues. But they’ll have a chance to see him in all his comedic glory at the Bay Street Theatre on Saturday night, when he kicks off a comedy series that will run through the summer.
“One more year,” said Mr. Belzer — that is, one more year before he breaks James Arness’s 20-year record of playing Marshall Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke.”
But if Mr. Belzer was looking to be immortalized as a Trivial Pursuit question, it’s too late, he’s already in the deck. He has the unprecedented distinction of playing the same character, Detective Munch, on no fewer than 10 different television series.
He, of course, has been on “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” (with Mariska Hargitay, an East Hampton resident), and “Law and Order: Trial by Jury.” But his crossover role includes being Munch on the cult classic “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock” (in a skit written especially for the show), “Sesame Street,” and “The X-Files.”
His appearance on “The Wire,” the David Simon HBO series, brought Mr. Belzer full circle, since his first appearance as Munch was on Mr. Simon’s “Homicide.”
Which leads us to Tommy Westphall, a minor character on an old show that has spawned a multiverse theory, much of it based on Mr. Belzer and his TV show-jumping abilities. Tommy Westphall was an autistic boy on the last episode of “St. Elsewhere,” and it was implied that the entire run of that series all took place in his mind.
Because of the crossover component, especially between characters on “St. Elsewhere” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” it has been theorized that over 280 shows are in Tommy Westphall’s imagination, and many of those connections are due to Mr. Belzer’s crossovers. He is the Kevin Bacon of television, allowing shows that wouldn’t normally intertwine to become joined through his cameo, or leading, roles.
Is it all a vast conspiracy by the creators of that popular hospital show of the 1980s? That’s an idea that Mr. Belzer — well known as a conspiracy theory buff — could have come up with himself.
“What isn’t a conspiracy?” he asked over the phone last Thursday. “We’ve now found out that the big banks have been robbing us for years. No big surprise there. The Internet has made collusion more complex, but even easier. The only twist on ‘1984’ is that it goes the other way too — the public is now watching the government and the big companies more than ever.”
“I just assume it’s all a conspiracy until it’s proven otherwise,” said Mr. Belzer, the author of “UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe.” “I’d like someone to prove to me that something isn’t. I would be happy to see that.”
Mr. Belzer expressed an “affinity for the Hamptons,” but confessed that he’s bringing his schtick to the South Fork because “I miss being in front of a live audience.” He said he is “excited” to play Bay Street.
“There’s a whole bunch of people out there who just know me as Munch,” he said. “So I look forward to new audiences as well as old fans.” Mr. Belzer said that in this act he works with a band, and does musical parodies, which may come as a surprise to those used to his understated wit on “S.V.U.” As far as keeping his comedy as fresh as today’s headlines, Mr. Belzer said: “I have no burning desire to be topical.”
Other comics scheduled to perform in the series include Patton Oswalt on July 11, Louie Anderson on July 18, Patrice O’Neal on July 25, Fred Armisen on Aug. 6, Elayne Boosler on Aug. 15, Tom Papa on Aug. 22, and Andrea Martin in her show “Andrea Martin: Final Days! Everything Must Go!” on Aug. 29.
All shows are at 8 pm. Tickets are $65, $60 for members, and are available through the Bay Street box office.