Richard Belzer is still pissed off, and he’s still funny as hell. The sharp-tongued comedian/actor has been holding a lamp of truth up to the dark foibles of politicians and pop culture icons for a couple of decades now, and though he’s found comfort and refuge in a happy marriage, his world-view shows no signs of mellowing.
Belzer’s comic career began in New York, when he auditioned for the video production of The Groove Tube and won several roles, including one of the leads in a sitcom parody called “The Dealers.” Having grown tired of paying the rent as a school teacher, census taker and journalist, Beizer jumped at the chance to be part of the underground film scene, and his success in the video and the later film version of The Groove Tube gave him the confidence to start doing standup.
Belzer’s combination of wild slapstick, heady rants and political diatribes have made him one of the country’s most vital comic commentators, but it seemed that the Hollywood world of prime-time TV and feature films never quite knew what to make of him. That changed when Beizer scored the role of Det. Munch on NBC’s cop-cranking psycho-drama Homicide. Last season, on an episode titled “And the Rocket’s Dead Glare,” Belzer’s worldweary Munch became the first prime-time character to deliver thoughtful, explicitly pro-hemp arguments as part of a debate over Drug War strategies. At present, Beizer is in Baltimore shooting new episodes of Homicide. He is also preparing a one-man show based on his view of the Kennedy assassination and cover-up.
HIGH TIMES: You seem to have a blast with the character of Munch no matter what he’s up to, but his pro-hemp speeches were quite a breakthrough. How did that come about?
Richard Belzer: The show is incredible. It’s a dream to be able to explore issues and make it entertaining. Last season, the producers told me they were talking about doing an episode where some people argued about the legalization of drugs. They wanted to use Munch as a pro-spokesman vs. a DEA guy who’s against. I asked the producer if he knew why marijuana was illegal, and he really didn’t know the history of it. I gave them some literature on it, and they beautifully wrote that into my dialogue. I thought it was absolutely incredible that a network, prime-time show would discuss these issues. I got to talk about the Declaration of Independence being written on hemp paper. That’s definitely never been said on prime-time.
HT: Was there any resistance from the producers or the network to any of the ideas you brought in?
RB: Not at all. As a matter of fact, they were delighted to have the real and historical information rather than just making shit up. The truth is always better.
I’ve read about this stuff for many years—about how up until World War II, hemp was used for fabric and fuel and protein. The flowering tops happen to get you high, but the rest of the plant is an amazing thing. Maybe hemp wouldn’t literally save the planet, but if we used it instead of trees for paper, we could leave the forests alone. Hemp paper lasts hundreds of years, and the plants grow anywhere and come back every year. The argument goes on and on, and the fact that hemp is illegal is a complete absurdity.
HT: Why do you think hemp became an “evil weed?’’
RB: Originally, the DuPonts and the Hearsts had a lot to do with it. In 1937, the patent for nylon was applied for by the DuPonts, and that’s when they said “Fuck this.” They didn’t want hemp rope on the market. The Hearsts owned paper mills and forests, so of course they didn’t want to use hemp paper. It was too cheap. The DuPonts and Hearsts teamed up to deny even industrial use for hemp. After all this time, there are finally some signs of common sense reappearing. In France, they just legalized marijuana for industrial use. That means using industrial seeds, which aren’t worth much smoke. The stuff they use for ropes and canvas doesn’t come from highly cultivated, smokers’ plants. They’re more “workman” plants. The THC is very low. They’re just used for the fiber, and not the hemp per se.
HT: As a scholar of hemp history, I’m sure you’ve gotten a kick out of oddities like the Hemp for Victory film.
RB: Oh yeah. We legalized hemp for the duration of WWII, but the Japanese took over all our hemp plantations in the Philippines. That’s where that Hemp for Victory newsreel came from. Remember that plane that George Bush had to bail out of during the war? The parachute that allowed him to float to the water was made of hemp. The boat that picked him up had an engine using hemp oil. The raft that rescued him was made of hemp, and the rope that pulled him out of the water was made of hemp. Without hemp, George Bush would be dead. What an ungrateful bastard he turned out to be.
HT: In the Homicide episode, you seemed to have a real mastery of the role hemp played in the early history of the United States. Thomas Jefferson probably would have enjoyed that show quite a bit.
RB: Jefferson had hemp plantations in the late seventeen-hundreds and early eighteen-hundreds. At that time, if you got caught taking hemp seeds out of China, it was the death penalty, but Jefferson used two secret agents to smuggle hemp seeds out of China, through Turkey, and back to his plantation. There are stories about him being a smoker, which can’t really be proved. But I think they drank a lot of hemp tea. It was the number one crop in the country. George Washington was the richest man in the colonies when he was elected President, and he had huge hemp plantations. It was used all over the world for all sorts of purposes. People prized their hemp seeds, and in some places the seeds were actually used as money. And, ironically, money is why there’s an irrational fear and hatred of hemp today.
HT: Greed and business interests obviously had everything to do with outlawing hemp in the first place, but today there seems to be a real moral outrage towards drug use. Where do you think that comes from?
RB: That’s an offshoot of the Drug War. But that fear doesn’t really apply to marijuana anymore. Everybody knows it’s a joke. Everybody knows that people don’t smoke a joint and run out and kill five people. It’ll never happen. Pot’s been around for thousands of years, and there’s nothing wrong with it. If anything, the things that it does that are good for your health should make people stop and think. There’s stuff in marijuana that’s actually good for your lungs, but you won’t read that in The New York Times. Marijuana is good for glaucoma, for appetite, for mood, as a relaxant. It’s not like this stuff just got whipped up and we’re trying to figure it out. It’s been around forever. The idea that it leads to worse drugs is absurd. I mean, maybe milk leads to heroin. Every heroin addict had milk at one time.
HT: One of the newer DEA arguments is that after all the years of cultivation, marijuana has become a potent and dangerous drug.
RB: That’s bullshit too. When you smoke really strong grass, you don’t want to jump out a window or kill anybody. You sit in your house and veg out. It’s not the kind of drug where you inhale it a few times and then run out and bite someone’s face. I don’t know what “dangerous” marijuana means. Maybe it’s dangerous if you trip over the bag. Go ahead and give me the most “dangerous” marijuana.
HT: Your show came out at a time when a pro-hemp stance is becoming more and more fashionable. Are you happy to see that kind of a movement taking shape?
RB: Yeah, there’s t-shirts, hats—a whole new generation of bands shamelessly talking about hemp. I don’t find that distasteful at all. I think that if we get out the message of “non-lethal, non-toxic, non-dangerous”—it may even help to get people off the really bad shit.
HT: Are you hopeful about any changes in the laws?
RB: Hemp won’t be legalized, but I think it’ll be decriminalized. If you’ve got less than an ounce, it’s a parking ticket. If it’s for your own use, just forget about it. I think judges in the future will throw out all marijuana cases simply because the prisons are too crowded and they want to put away more dangerous people.
HT: You’re one of the few standup comics who consistently work troubling political issues into your material. You seem particularly disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Drug War.
RB: When the government cracked down on marijuana a few years ago, that’s when cocaine became popular. People just want to get high, and they’ve been wanting to get high since the beginning of fucking time. And to make something as innocuous as grass less available makes people try other things. So the government is responsible for the increased use of cocaine.
Around the same time marijuana was made scarce, tons of cocaine came into this country to help finance the Contra war. I’d say there was a formula there. It’s not a myth. It’s not left-wing paranoia. Our government uses drugs to raise money for covert activities. That’s an equation you don’t hear too much about when you talk about marijuana use. I guarantee that if marijuana were easier to export and sell, the government would have used that to finance the Contras. It just happens to be too bulky. It’s not a powder.
HT: Are you disturbed or disappointed that the Iran-Contra scandal fizzled out without a full accounting of the government’s practices?
RB: The mainstream press passed on it from the beginning. The Democrats and Republicans got together and said, “Look, we can’t have another President impeached.” Reagan was impeachable. The Constitution says the President needs to see that all laws are obeyed, and Reagan had something like a hundred and eleven people in his administration breaking laws. By definition, he should have been impeached. Congress wanted to protect him, and kept the drug side out of it. The whole thing was a total fraud.
HT: That’s depressing, but I suppose that every major government throughout history has tapped into some kind of drug trade to help cement its power.
RB: It’s always been there. It’s just that you don’t learn about it in school and it’s not in the mainstream newspapers. But drugs are a big part of government. When the Afghanis were fighting the Russians, we let them run heroin into the United States so that maybe they’d prevail over the Communists. When you see the sheik and all these guys trying to blow up the World Trade Center, you’ve got to believe that there’s a CIA connection. These heroin dealers and hashish dealers that we propped up are coming back to haunt us.
HT: Speaking of being haunted, your new one-man show deals with the Kennedy assassination. You’re obviously still very bothered by what took place in Dallas.
RB: It’s incredible. It’s been thirty years, over six hundred books have come out, and there are still no satisfactory answers. We can’t let it go. It was a coup d’etat. Every government after Kennedy’s is illegal. That’s why the mainstream press isn’t too happy to talk about it—they were complicitous. My piece is funny, but also illuminating. I’m obsessed with the subject, and it never goes away. It’s my nightmare. There are some wonderful books from credible people trying to make sense of it all, but they never get press. My piece comes out of a lot of frustration.
HT: In general terms, does the Clinton Administration give you any kind of hope for the future?
RB: Whoever’s in power, I’m the opposition. As a political comedian, it’s my job not to go to the White House. You can’t be seduced.
HT: When Ned Beatty’s character asked Munch if he was a smoker, Munch begged off the question. Can you tell HIGH TIMES if you still enjoy the pleasures of hemp?
RB: Wherever it’s legal, I smoke it. I heard William Buckley say that he smoked a joint on his yacht, off the coast of the US in international waters. Even with all his buddies in the DEA, he didn’t want to say that he just lit up at a party. So let’s just say that Mr. Belzer has experimented under strictly legal conditions.
Read the full issue here.