The King of Comedy (1983) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard
Since Scorsese’s name is all over the place let’s revisit one of his under-the-radar films – “The King of Comedy”.
“The King of Comedy” is a film about Rupert Pupkin, a boob of a man, and a pathetic wannabe comedian who idolizes a Johnny Carson-type of talk show host, Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. One night after a taping Rupert hangs around the throngs of press and fans all trying to catch glimpse of Langford. During the scrum Rupert manages to sneak his way into Langford’s limo and drive off with the star. This is Rupert in a nutshell, an annoyingly persistent mouse, able to sneak through the tiniest cracks. While in the limo Rupert feels this is his “big break”, and pitches Jerry on his comedy act. Jerry is accommodating but also straight with him and tells him the value of earning one’s success. Jerry leaves the door open though by taking Rupert’s audition tape, which is just the inch Rupert needs to take a gigantic mile.
Rupert drops off his tape, but then proceeds to spend day after day in Langford’s office waiting for a response. The scenes of Rupert sitting in the waiting room are quietly frightening. Prior to being thrown out of the building Langford’s producer gives Rupert the bad news. This sends Rupert into further delusions of grandeur.
The rest of the film escalates from incident to incident culminating with Rupert kidnapping Langford and extorting from him an appearance on his show. Rupert does manage to make it onto television which incites a great twist which I won’t reveal. The climax and denouement changes your perspective on De Niro’s character and the whole film itself.
It’s De Niro’s movie and one of his finest performances. Scene after scene we see a side to De Niro we haven’t seen before, or since. His bravura moments are in his mother’s basement where he has set up his own talk show studio set. He plays himself, Langford and his other guests all at once, moving from seat to seat. It’s as good as the famous "are you talking to me" scene in “Taxi Driver.” The dream sequence where he’s having lunch with Langford is also a classic.
The title is perhaps a misnomer as this fourth re-teaming of De Niro with Scorsese is not so much a comedy but a disturbing black comedy that teeters closely into “Taxi Driver” territory. Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin are alike (both great screen names). They share the same neuroses. They’re both loners and social outcasts who yearn to be famous or important in society, yet lack the social behaviour skills to succeed. Thinking back, the film was ahead of its time, when in 1983, there was no such thing as reality TV, or instant pop culture stars. Rupert Pupkin would have made a great Survivor contestant, or at the very least achieve William Hung-type success – the ironic celebrity.
Maybe I’m overreaching, but imagine a golfing foursome of Rupert Pupkin, Travis Bickle, Max Cady, and Jake LaMotta. In many ways they are the same - all of them boast an impressive gift of obsessiveness and for perfecting the art of enduring pain and humiliation. Enjoy.
The King of Comedy