The King of Comedy

That’s Entertainment!

The H-Bomb: Having previously done Bin reviews for the lesser seen films of Robert Altman and Oliver Stone, it’s time to turn my attention to another great filmmaker, the one and only Martin Scorsese, and one of his better films that isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be, “The King of Comedy”. One could look at this movie as almost being a darkly comedic remake of an earlier Scorsese picture, “Taxi Driver”. This one once again features Robert De Niro playing a very disturbed, ticking time bomb of a character who is socially inept, living completely in his own fantasies, and has a potentially deadly fixation.

This time, the sick mind that De Niro inhabits so completely belongs to a poor soul named Rupert Pupkin (Not Pumpkin. Not Pupnik. Pupkin!), a 34 year old aspiring comedian who dreams of making it to the big time and being loved and admired by all… he just has nary a clue as to how he can achieve this goal. The object of Rupert’s obsession is Johnny Carson-like comedian/No. 1 late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).

Rupert stands outside the studio back exit with a crowd every night waiting to flank Jerry as he leaves. One night he manages to push and shove his way into Jerry’s limo and make his pitch. A mildly irritated Jerry politely listens and then offers some general advice, hoping that it will placate Rupert. But Pupkin proves to be the pushy sort and keeps pestering and pestering Jerry about listening to his stand-up act and maybe landing a spot on his show. Jerry finally caves and tells Rupert to call his assistant.

Now, any normal person would recognize this as the blow off that it is, but with good old Rupert Pupkin, Jerry has no idea the Pandora’s Box he just opened. Rupert is both single-mindedly ambitious and certifiably insane, and he sees this as the big break he‘s been waiting his whole life for, and by God, he ain‘t gonna blow it.

Warming himself up by having imaginary three-way interviews with himself and cardboard cut-outs of Jerry and Liza Minelli, Rupert starts by flooding Jerry’s office with phone calls. When that gets him nowhere, he starts showing up at Jerry’s office, just sitting in the lobby and bugging the receptionists. Finally Jerry’s assistant meets him and agrees to listen to an audition tape. At the next meeting, she gently turns Rupert down on Jerry’s behalf. Rupert, not taking the rejection well, storms into the offices in an unsuccessful search for Jerry and is finally shown out of the building by security.

But remember, Rupert is both determined and nuts, and what follows is one of the most squirm inducing scenes in a film full of them. Rupert shows up at Jerry’s vacation home, with a date in tow, talks his way into the house, and he and his date proceed to make themselves right at home. When Jerry comes back from the golf course and finds his unexpected guests there, the scene gives new meaning to the word “awkward.”

Having finally heard straight from the horse’s mouth that Jerry wants absolutely nothing to do with him, Rupert is left with only one last option: Kidnap Jerry and negotiate his way onto the show. Drastic, yes, but sometimes achieving fame is just a matter of how far a man is willing to go to get it. The question is, did Rupert go too far? And, will it work? More importantly, does Rupert even have talent as a comedian? What if he does?

“The King of Comedy” is essentially a film about what some unbalanced people may do to get their “15 minutes.” Except Rupert doesn’t just want fifteen minutes, he wants to become famous and stay famous. He wants to be where Jerry’s at, at the top of the world. In fact, it’s almost as if he wants TO BE Jerry. It’s a cautionary about the want for fame. Yes, you can be rich. Yes, you can be adored. But, you may also have to deal with being the object of fanatical obsession for the Rupert Pupkins of the world. Hell, you don’t even have to be a celebrity to know what it’s like to have an unwanted person force their way into your life.

When this came out in 1983, it flopped hard and was dismissed by most critics. This makes me wonder, what the hell was wrong with most critics? Many have re-evaluated the film over the years, but what brain sickness was going around at the time that kept them from recognizing this as being the provocative, disturbing, and funny film that it is. Granted, it’s not funny ha-ha so much as it’s funny uncomfortable.

Seeing this nut act so obviously like a nut yet being completely oblivious to how nuts he comes across as really made me cringe and look away from the screen for much of the film. It’s that kind of embarrassed feeling you get when you are in public and you see someone making a fool of themselves in front of everyone. It’s funny in a way, but it’s uncomfortable, too. Another film that made me feel that way was “The Cable Guy”, and like “The King of Comedy”, that’s another good one that never quite got the recognition it deserved.

These days we’re so used to seeing Robert De Niro playing cops, or gangsters, or spoofing his own image, that we forget that he truly has a gift for playing emotionally or psychologically troubled people. With his portrayal of Rupert Pupkin, he is truly in top form, and given that this is Robert fuckin’ De Niro we’re talking about, those are not words I utter lightly. He shows that Rupert is clearly cuckoo, but he also makes him kind of endearing and he kind of makes us want to see him succeed. Sorry, but despite his clear issues, I couldn’t help but kind of like the guy.

Jerry Lewis, the legendary comedic actor, ironically plays the straight man to a legendary dramatic actor, and gives, from what I’ve seen of his work, his best performance. He plays a man who made me wonder if he would give up his fame just to be left alone. “I’m gonna work 50 times harder, and I’m gonna be 50 times more famous than you,” Rupert barks at him in a key scene, to which Jerry replies, “Then you’re gonna have idiots LIKE YOU plaguing your life!”

Some of Martin Scorsese’s trademark stylistics are seen, but to an extent he takes a step back, being that this is a character and dialogue driven film, and lets the actors do the real work. Scorsese, as a cinematic storyteller, has always been drawn to intelligent, often edgy material, and Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay for this film is no exception.

“The King of Comedy” is a great film by a great filmmaker starring a great actor that a great many people still haven’t seen, and that‘s just sad. I didn’t see it myself until just the other week, and that is unforgivable on my part. Big shame on me. Scorsese has made quite a few terrific films that were missed by most (“Bringing Out the Dead”, “Kundun”), and this is definitely one of them.


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