Richard Belzer’s Greatest Contribution to Pop Culture Was the Munchiverse

Photo: Sesame Street/YouTube

Leave it to a comic to help create one of the silliest pop-culture theories in history. Richard Belzer, who played John Munch across several TV shows (and cameoed as him in even more), died February 19. His passing put limits on what until then had been an ever-expanding multiverse of connected intellectual properties, all of which may exist inside one child’s snow globe, often known as the Tommy Westphall universe theory. Detective John Munch helped link TV shows across genre and decade into one interconnected web of intellectual property. The snow-globe shared universe was first meme-ified by comics artist Dwayne McDuffie (ironically in order to critique the fetishization of shared universes). McDuffie called it “Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere,” but make no mistake: The Munchiverse belonged to Richard Belzer. The Munch Cinematic Universe is, by far, the best MCU.

Who is Tommy Westphall?

Our story starts in 1982, when St. Elsewhere premiered on NBC. “The show was always on the brink of being canceled,” writer Tom Fontana told the podcast Imaginary Worlds. “Rather than do what a lot of people do, which is, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get canceled; let’s make it more palatable for the audience,’ we went out of our way to make it as unpalatable as we possibly could.” One way they did that was by doing crossovers between the allegedly serious medical drama with sitcoms like Newhart, Cheers, and M*A*S*H*. Many of these shows were productions of MTM, the company that spawned a great number of the prestige-TV writers of the aughts.

When the show was entering its last season, Fontana and the St. Elsewhere crew retconned the entire series to have taken place inside the imagination of an autistic boy, Tommy Westphall, as he stares into a snow globe of the St. Eligius hospital. Weird but not earth-shattering, right? Thing is after St. Elsewhere, Fontana went on to write for a little show called Homicide: Life on the Street.

Enter Detective Munch

Richard Belzer first played Detective John Munch on Homicide, a show based on the book by David Simon, The Wire creator. Fontana crossed Homicide over with both St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope. Homicide also had a crossover with Law & Order in the show’s sixth season. According to Fontana, Belzer took on the Munch cameo joke as a “mission” between the two men. “He was like, ‘Let’s see, I could be on all the Law & Order shows.’” Slowly Fontana and Belzer constructed the Munchiverse. “They would say ‘We’d want you to be in this,’” Fontana told Invisible Worlds, “and he’d go ‘Well, I have to play Munch.’” Before Kang, there was Munch.

How many shows are we talking about here?

According to the Tommy Westphall Universe master list, there are 419 shows floating around that snow globe. Of those, at least 13 feature Detective John Munch in some capacity: Homicide, three L&O’s, The X-Files, The Beat, Arrested Development, The Wire, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, American Dad, Sesame Street, and something called M.O.N.Y. Belzer’s IMDb lists a few other detective roles that, even if he isn’t explicitly called Munch, could very well exist in the ’verse. Looking at you, A Very Brady Sequel.

Of these crossovers, The X-Files is perhaps the most impactful. That show crossed over with all sorts of stuff: The Simpsons, Cops, and more. Many shows use the fictional cigarette brand Morley in homage to The X-Files. People smoke Morleys on Buffy, Friends, American Horror Story, and more. But The X-Files didn’t invent Morleys. They had been used as a fake brand since at least Psycho. Which means the Munchiverse will probably keep going as long as people are allowed to smoke on TV.

This post was corrected to show that Belzer guested on The X-Files and not The Lone Gunman.

The Munchiverse, Explained