Why so many comics do 'Homocide'

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated May 05, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Murder and stand-up comedy? They have more in common than you might think. Consider: ”He slayed them out there” or ”That was a killer set.” Providing further evidence is Homicide, NBC’s dark drama about unnatural death in Baltimore, which has been home to more comics than a weekend at the Improv. Not only does Richard Belzer flex his dramatic muscles as Det. John Munch, but the show has also boasted appearances by Robin Williams, as a weepy widower; Howie Mandel, as a fastidious interior designer; and Jerry Stiller, as a struggling bartender with dreams of raspberry beer.

”There is something tonal they bring that fits the show,” explains co-executive producer Henry Bromell. ”There’s a certain danger inherent in comics. They’re up there and anything can happen. They’re not quite in control.”

Stiller, the borscht belter best known nowadays as George’s high-decibel father on Seinfeld, says it’s the years of working clubs that gives edge to a comedian’s dramatic acting. ”Somehow it adds a little more,” he says. ”Imagine a person having a third arm or two heads.”

Stiller, like Mandel, landed his Homicide gig after having worked with executive producer Tom Fontana (Stiller on Tattinger’s, Mandel on St. Elsewhere). And Williams had collaborated with Barry Levinson on Toys and Good Morning, Vietnam. But Belzer first caught the ear of Homicide‘s casting director with a cynical rant on The Howard Stern Show. Belzer remembers that while waiting for his audition, he sneaked a peek at some of his competition’s tapes and decided they were playing the role too seriously. Homicide detectives, after all, are often masters of gallows humor. They ”come into a room and there are two people beaten to death with a baseball bat,” Belzer notes. ”The jokes have to start flying, or you’re in trouble.”