Film: The King of Comedy
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman
Primary Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott, Shelley Hack
US Release Date: 18 February 1983
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is nobody, but he wants to be a comic. Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is a late-night talk show host, whom Rupert idolizes. At thirty-four, Rupert still lives with his mother, and the only person who might consider him a friend is a woman named Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who is so obsessed with Jerry that she has a shrine to him in her home.
One night after taping his show, Jerry is caught in a swarm of fans desperate for a taste of his fame. Amid the frenzy, Rupert finds his way into the comedian’s car. For Rupert, the meeting represents his chance to make it in show business, and he spends the rest of the film making sure that is the case.
Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is steeped in cynicism and disillusionment. Bleak and unsettling, the film has no desire to reassure audiences. Instead, this cringe-comedy focuses its attention on presenting a set of unhinged characters in a disturbing and unflattering light. Far more interested in producing feelings of frustration than it is in provoking laughter, The King of Comedy is an exercise in deprivation. As such, it continually preys upon its viewers, and the results are difficult to shake.
Throughout The King of Comedy, Scorsese repeatedly withholds satisfaction. When Rupert takes a bartender named Rita (Diahnne Abbott) on a date, he shows her numerous celebrity signatures in the restaurant’s registry, but viewers aren’t allowed to see a single one. In a scene where Rupert waits to meet with Jerry, he looks up at the ceiling and asks the receptionist what it’s made of. Instead of cutting to a shot showing what Rupert sees above him, the camera stays fixed at his level, thereby thwarting viewer curiosity. Though Masha is always trying to get a note to Jerry, Scorsese never shares a word of what it contains. While she can often be heard shouting from off-screen, Rupert’s mother remains completely hidden.
The most important deprivation in the film concern’s Rupert’s act. Rupert’s sole focus for most of The King of Comedy is to perform his stand-up routine on Jerry’s show. To this end, he practices at home, and he makes a tape of his jokes to take to Jerry’s office. And yet, viewers are not allowed to hear any of his material until the last possible moment. In this way, The King of Comedy is like a string of jokes without a punchline; the film reels audiences in with set-up after set-up, and then it slaps them in the face with their entitlement.
For frustration to arise, there must first be expectation. Again and again, The King of Comedy conditions audiences to expect satisfaction (in the form of jokes and information) only to pull the carrot away at the last minute. And if viewers find themselves disappointed when they don’t receive the payoff they desire, how can they fault Rupert for his unflinching determination to get what he wants?
The King of Comedy also takes advantage of audiences through scenes in which it presents Rupert’s various fantasies. Though such scenes take place in Rupert’s head, they are not initially introduced as imagined. At first, these moments are disorienting, as they momentarily blur the boundaries of what is real. However, by presenting a number of such scenes, Scorsese gradually conditions viewers to expect delusion whenever the film takes a certain turn. Then, he uses such a turn to trick them into regarding as fantasy something that is actually happening in Rupert’s life; this destabilizing moment reminds anyone watching The King of Comedy that they are not in control and that the film was not made with their comfort in mind.
Written by Paul D. Zimmerman, The King of Comedy’s script is filled with isolated, lonely individuals. Even the ostensibly successful Jerry is never shown interacting with family or friends. While Rupert and Masha do have a tenuous connection, their exchanges are limited to the only thing they have in common: obsession with a man they do not know. The picture of humanity painted by such a script is decidedly bleak, but it also works to make the film’s largely unlikable characters at least somewhat sympathetic. Even at their most detestable, the figures in The King of Comedy do not exist in a vacuum—they are part of a larger society. Something made them the way they are, and that is an upsetting thought.
Rupert Pupkin is no ordinary protagonist. He is always performing, and viewers are afforded little access to his interiority. A possible psychopath, Rupert exists behind a wall, and those traits that do surface, don’t always go hand-in-hand. He is childish and threatening, pathetic and unpredictable. On the outside, Rupert is typically upbeat and positive, but there is a darkness in De Niro’s eyes that exposes bitterness and rage. As complex as the character is, De Niro doesn’t miss a beat. He establishes Rupert as an overwhelming and exhausting presence through a number of physical cues (talking quickly, smiling constantly, moving his hands, and leaning in). De Niro also exhibits a remarkable ability to thrive in the space between humor and terror, which is just where The King of Comedy wants to be.
There is a lot of very nasty stuff at the heart of this film. At times, Scorsese may seem to be it holding back; in reality, he is exercising control. Like De Niro in so many of his roles, The King of Comedy is wound so tightly that it could snap into violent chaos at any moment. And like Rupert, the movie gives the impression that it’s capable of terrible things, whether it’s smiling or not.
Even when it’s unpleasant to watch, The King of Comedy has something to say. It throws a shadow over all it touches—including show business, personal isolation, television, celebrity, and fame—and if viewers find themselves unable to enjoy the song “Come Rain or Come Shine” afterward, then they have Scorsese to thank.
In an early scene, Rupert says to Rita, “A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price. What’s so funny about that?” The film’s answer: nothing at all.
Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! If you are a Scorsese fan who hasn’t seen The King of Comedy, I’d encourage you to give it a look. It’s offbeat and strange, but its also an instance of intelligent, calculated filmmaking that’s more than worth the $3 it cost to rent it online.