by Maurizio Roca
The title and look of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film can be misleading. I initially assumed it was some broad 80s comedy that the director was making as a peculiar genre exercise similar to New York New York with Liza Minelli in 1977. What with De Niro’s flashy outfits and hairstyle, plus the inclusion of Sandra Bernhard, a false perception of what to expect is not an impossible stretch. While I had personally heard good things from various people about the film, I waited a long time before finally getting the motivation to watch it. When the day inevitably came, I was surprised by the content and the tone presented in The King Of Comedy. It has certainly been overlooked to some degree and for superficially obvious reasons in my case.
“I’m going to work 50 times harder, and I’m going to be 50 times more famous than you.”
Rupert Pupkin as played by Robert De Niro is an autograph hound who aspires to be a stand-up comic. He procures a “chance” meeting with Langford, a Johnny Carson-like talk show host (played by Jerry Lewis), who is struggling with a mob of crazed fans after a broadcast taping. Pupkin takes advantage of the situation and pitches himself incessantly to him. Langford halfheartedly promises to listen to his act, but once Langford and his colleagues hear his tape of comedy bits, Pupkin gets continuously rejected and outright dismissed. The initial adrenaline rush of a possible break into the big time followed by the realistic disappointment of being rebuffed results in increasingly elaborate imaginations—first filled with elation and then slowly become dire and desperate. Pupkin eventually resorts to kidnapping Langford, forcing hostage-like demands on the comedian, his network, and police to book an opening spot on that evening’s show. The elusive fantasy of fame and immortality are finally achieved through severe means…or so it seems. With The King Of Comedy, like the conclusion of Taxi Driver, we are never quite sure what is real and what is fabrication. For all we know, Pupkin may actually be reduced to banging his head against a brick wall in a jail cell after his various transgressions. The ending is undoubtedly ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Interestingly, while The King Of Comedy was indeed injected with humor, it was clearly of a dry and very black variety, which offers a disturbing look into the futility of dreams and ambitions that could not be fully realize. The delusions of Rupert Pupkin were in many ways similar to those of other Scorsese protagonists (if that is what we should call De Niro’s characters in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull)who easily crossed the line into perverse flights of fancy. The laughs come with a heavy dose of discomfort throughout the entire movie. One is reminded of Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist and it’s lowly forgotten central figure. Here is a person that has withdrawn so far within himself to lose all sense of reality. The big difference overall? At least the nameless fasting professional in Kafka’s short story had some recognition in the distant past (which could be up for debate when reading Kafka’s mocking sarcastic tone), while Pupkin is a complete obscurity who can’t even be remembered, much less be forgotten.
The link between both individuals in the film and the short story is the desire to scale heights that have now either been closed off or denied them due to some faceless uncaring establishment. The desperate attempt to gain some meaningful traction in a distracted world becomes an obsession beyond standard limits. It’s that determination to transcend the career barriers that have now been placed as roadblocks that gives both figures their propulsive drive. Both characters forget their actual circumstances and reach for something that society deems unattainable. The film’s humor comes from the fact that Pupkin has no actual talent (or personal shame) and has been sucked up into a superficial dream world of celebrity culture. The film offers a cynical look at thwarted desires, but it also shows that while he has both drive and ambition, he has pitched his tent towards a particular path unworthy of those virtues.
The performances by all the actors are wonderful across the board. One expects De Niro to give an inspired performance at this stage in his career and with Scorsese at the helm. He certainly does not disappoint at any point throughout the film. The bigger surprise (for me at least) is the very good work both Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis put in. The former is superb in transmitting an even more frenzied level of distress than Rupert Pupkin. Lewis brings layered nuance to a character that isn’t someone the audience will necessarily root for, but who’s frustration can be understood given the circumstances of the plot.
So the question that must be asked is if this film can actually be considered part of the comedy genre? Some might oppose this label and consider it more of a straight drama with comedic overtones. In many ways, The King Of Comedy is darker than every film Scorsese had made up to this point. Rupert Pupkin is certainly a prescient character who seems to mirror American society’s obsession with celebrity culture and reality television even more thirty years later. He also comes off like an alarmingly modern version of an extreme narcissist who would certainly use and abuse social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to satisfy his sociopathic urges for attention. Above all else, what makes The King Of Comedy a spooky, chilly film is that its protagonist seems less a product of a singular example of individual isolation (Jake La Motta, for one), but more a consequence of a tainted culture that cultivates such people and societies in large quantities. It’s a satire that foreshadows a new kind of thriving self-absorption.
So does the movie make you laugh? Does it belong on this countdown? Well, at least seven people seem to think so…
How The King Of Comedy Made The Top 100:
Bobby McCartney No: 6
Maurizio Roca No: 12
John Greco No: 28
J.D. La France No: 34
Ed Howard No: 39
Pierre De Plume No: 40
Pedro Silva No: 45