The world is still not ready for The King of Comedy. It bombed at the box office upon its 1983 release, and it remains the most overlooked, misunderstood and under-appreciated film in the collaborative filmography of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Perhaps the title is too confounding. The King of Comedy is not really a comic film; at least, not in any sense understood by traditional Hollywood conventions. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny. It’s a scathingly funny movie at times. But it’s also disconcerting, painful and ruthlessly honest. More than anything, it’s a condemnation. It’s a spit in the face of modern celebrity culture, of the soulless ghouls who inhabit that world, and the vacuous public multitude that seeks to worship and emulate them. Literally nobody is spared the lash in The King of Comedy. The dead-on characters who inhabit the film’s satirical landscape engage in spectacularly conceited behaviour. It’s a left hook to the jaw of everybody who fell for the cosy lie of the American Dream: that fame and fortune is available upon demand for anybody who wants it badly enough.
Let’s talk about Robert De Niro. If you want to do an intense character portrayal of an obsessive outsider, who else you gonna’ call? The man was still at the peak of his game here. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull– De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedyis every bit as riveting as these earlier, more acclaimed works. We’re used to seeing De Niro play the violent, gangster type. Here we portrays an outwardly harmless loser, but one who, in his own goofball fashion, is just as disturbing an individual as Travis Bickle. Pupkin is a man who, if not clinically crazy, is teetering on the edge of the cliffs of insanity at the very least. He seemingly has no capacity for self-reflection, let alone critical self-appraisal. In Pupkin’s own mind, he’s a man of exceptional talent, possessed of comic wit and sparkling charisma. That he will become a big shot celebrity is already written in the stars. All he needs is one opportunity. And that opportunity will be fulfilled by appearing on the “Jerry Langford Show” – a popular nightly chat show in the mode of Letterman or Johnny Carson – a notion that Pupkin is obsessed with beyond all semblance of reality. Never mind that Pupkin, in actuality, is a creepy, socially inept mediocrity. He will get that shot at the big time and he will become famous, and he’s prepared to go to any and all lengths to get it.
De Niro invests this character with the rubbery, unnatural persona of a department store mannequin. He’s one of the most loathsomely unctuous leading characters to be found in movie history. It’s in his whiney voice, perpetual shit-eating grin and fawning body language. He’s the kind of guy you really wouldn’t want sitting next to you on a bus. At the same time, Pupkin is so naively optimistic about his future prospects, and so utterly clueless about the appropriate way to behave in social situations, that you can’t really hate him. Not that he’s a sympathetic character. He’s the ultimate narcissist, totally unconcerned with the thoughts or feelings of others outside of their reference to his own self image. He appears to spend most of his time fantasising about his imagined celebrity. In some of the movie’s most darkly comic scenes, Pupkin conducts imaginary interviews from a fake chat show set he’s constructed in his room, complete with life-size cardboard cut-outs of Liza Minelli and Jerry Lewis. It’s funny and disturbing at the same time. In Pupkin’s mind, there is no real distinction between his fantasies and reality.
In the movie’s opening sequence, Pupkin barges his way through an adoring crowd, gathered to greet famed talk show host Jerry Langford – played by real life comedian Jerry Lewis. Pupkin forces his way into Langford’s limousine and immediately sets about attempting to ingratiate himself with the distinctly unimpressed star. Jerry Lewis is an inspired piece of casting in The King of Comedy. More renowned for his roles in broad, slapstick comedies like The Nutty Professor, here Lewis radiates a seething, barely conceiled contempt for the “little people” who just can’t seem to leave him alone. Like most celebrities, Langford is a raging egomaniac. The superficial, easy going charm he exhibits on the stage masks a kind of perpetual, low boiling misanthropy. He’s a miserable prisoner of his own success, but all the same he’d probably stab his own mother in the eyes to hold onto it. After all, in star-struck America, the only thing that really counts for anything is being famous. The people Langford’s success depends on – the untold ranks of the dweeby unwashed – are the very people he loathes the most. The King of Comedy exposes the ghastly phenomenon of celebrity for what it really is: a kind of vampirism, in which the celebrity absorbs the adulation of the willing public and gives back nothing in return. Not that the public is portrayed in an any more flattering light. They’ll do anything to get a piece of the celebrity world they worship, even if it means harming the objects of their adoration. “I hope you get cancer!” – a little old lady yells out after Jerry Langford in the street, when he refuses to stop and chat.
Pupkin incessantly badgers Langford for a spot on the show. Langford gives him the standard rebuff – “call my office and I’ll have them take a look at your material”. But Pupkin is so ignorant of social niceties, and so wrapped up in his obsession with fame, that he never considers for a moment that Langford is simply trying to get rid of him. He takes Langford at his word. More than that, in Pupkin’s delusional mind, Langford has actually extended a hand of friendship. Not only is his appearance on the show assured, his submission of material by now a mere formality, but he’s been invited into Langford’s confidence. In Pupkin’s eyes, they’re both stars, and therefore mutually respectful equals. For him, external reality is just sort of made up as you go along. So actual reality is too awful to even contemplate? Just throw it out and substitute a fantasy in its place – what’s the difference?
Needless to say, when Pupkin turns up at Langford’s television studio with the expectation of instant fame, he’s rebuffed at every turn. He can’t even get past the desk. But even then, he simply refuses to take the message. It’s because of a misunderstanding, or because Langford wasn’t in the office that day, or because the desk flunkies don’t understand that he’s supposed to be a sure bet – that he can’t get the gig. When a production executive frankly explains to him that he needs to work on his material , tour the lower rungs of the comedy circuit and work his way up before he’ll merit serious consideration, Pupkin just doesn’t want to hear of it. He’s not interested in starting out from the bottom. In his own mind, he’s destined to become famous be divine right, and he wants it all right away. Of course, even the exec’s advice is really a brush off. Played with an icily polite veneer by Shelley Hack, she dismisses Pupkin with thinly veiled contempt. You’re either a part of her world or you’re not. There’s no mistaking that Pupkin belongs firmly to the category of weirdo wannabes and hence, does not merit her attention.
Undeterred, Pupkin simply decides to turn up at Langford’s country estate. After all, he’s sort of been invited anyway hasn’t he? Well, maybe in his own mind. Pupkin drags along the object of his high school affections, Rita Keane (Diahnne Abbott) a former beauty Queen whose life hasn’t really turned out like she planned. She’s sceptical about Pupkin’s grandiose claims, but resigns herself to going along anyway. Why? Well perhaps out of the hope that anything might be better than her present set of circumstances. In America, the realm of the rich and famous is a higher dimension where dreams are automatically fulfilled. Or so it would seem.
After the misbegotten pair gatecrash the country house, they’re confronted by Langford in a state of barely restrained apoplexy. But the remarkable thing is, Pupkin just keeps playing along with the charade, as if Langford had greeted him with a comradely slap on the back and an offer of light refreshments. The King of Comedy is, in a sense, a study of inappropriate behaviour – of a man who simply does not know how to conduct himself properly in a social context. At times it’s excruciating to observe Pupkin’s behaviour, in a fashion not dissimilar to the cringe inducing performances of Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the UK original version of The Office. “OK, I get the hint”– Pupkin finally acknowledges after being repeatedly told to get the fuck off the property by an irate Langford – demonstrating that not only does he not get the hint, he’s got no conception of the absurdity of his behaviour at all.
Finally, Pupkin hits upon his most desperate scheme yet. With the assistance of another Jerry Langford obsessed fruitcake – Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard – he plans to kidnap Langford and use him as ransom to get a slot on the show. If he can’t get people to recognise his self-proclaimed comic genius by conventional means, then hell, he’ll just have to use force to get their attention! Fame induced at the barrel of a gun: that’s the encapsulation of the American Dream right there. In a film that features inspired casting throughout, Bernhard’s unhinged performance still stands out. She was a frequent critic of celebrity culture in her own seventies stand-up act, which might well have landed her the gig. If anything, Masha comes across as even more completely bonkers than Pupkin does. She gets the movie’s biggest laughs, particularly during her manic, wild-eyed attempts to seduce a truculent Jerry Langford, while he’s gagged and strapped to a chair.
So Pupkin finally manages to get his gig, and our worst suspicions are confirmed: he’s a lousy comedian, hamming his way through a series of vapid, blundering punch lines. And this guy has been working on this act his whole life? The thing is though, Pupkin’s act doesn’t necessarily come off as much worse than your standard hackneyed TV standup routine, and the studio audience actually appears to lap it up. They’re primed to laugh on cue anyway. It’s like it doesn’t make any difference. Pupkin even tells them what he had to do on to get on the show: “Now, a lot of you are probably wondering… why Jerry isn’t with us tonight. Well, I’ll tell you. The fact is he’s tied up. I’m the one who tied him.” And they laugh along, thinking it’s all part of the act.
As corny as Pupkin’s routine may be, it does provide us with a brief glimpse into his formative years, and how this delusional loser came to be. When he makes gags about cleaning up the vomit of his alcoholic mother, being kicked in the stomach by his father, and getting endlessly tormented at school, we realise that he’s not making this stuff up. He’s describing actual events from his life, evidently the part of it before he split permanently for fantasy la-la land. Earlier in the movie, one of Pupkin’s fantasy sequences depicts a “This is Your Life” style TV segment in which a world famous Pupkin is reunited with his old headmaster, who, in an eerie moment, apologises on behalf of the school for “all the things that we did to you”. Quite what was done to Pupkin is deliberately left ambiguous.
The ending of The King of Comedy has been the subject of some debate – whether it represents a continuation of Pupkin’s delusional fantasies, as he rots away in some jail cell for his crimes, or whether the events really take place; i.e. Pupkin gets his wish and finally becomes famous. The concluding shots have the same dreamy, hazed out feel of Pupkin’s earlier fantasies, which would initially appear to suggest that the sequence is indeed a product of his imagination. However, I think the film is rendered more powerful if we consider that Pupkin does actually achieve his dream. The film becomes less of a condemnation of the character – who, after all, appears to be an unwitting dupe of debased cultural values rather than a consciously ruthless and calculating individual – and more of a condemnation of modern society. A culture so unhinged that it could actually produce a man of this nature, then turn him into a star for breaking the law for no other reason than to achieve that stardom. This is the modern world’s top aspiration, no less. The King of Comedy suggests that modern culture has become a paradigm of inverted values, in which all that is most worthless and empty is venerated most highly.
The film’s final shot is a curious one. Pupkin is introduced on stage to greet an applauding, adoring audience. “Would you welcome home please television’s brightest new star. The legendary, inspirational, the one and only king of comedy. Ladies and gentlemen, Rupert Pupkin!” – proclaims the announcer. But the shot is carried on long past any semblance of reality, with Pupkin simply nodding and soaking in the adulation, while the audience continues to cheer, and the announcer continues to repeat his introductions. It’s like Pupkin’s moment has arrived, but he’s absolutely clueless as to what to do with it. After all, he doesn’t actually have any talent worth noting. He has literally nothing to offer. He’s become famous for… well, nothing other than being famous.
In an age of Paris Hilton, Kevin Ferderline and a veritable horde of desperate reality TV show wannabes – all too ready to sacrifice any shred of personal dignity for the dubious honour of becoming a Z-list celebrity – The King of Comedy is more relevant than it ever has been. But it’s still too acerbically truthful to find wider acceptance. Here is a movie that basically tells you straight up: the cult of celebrity is a soul-sucking dead-end, with the vampires who occupy the echelons of that world being no more worthy of respect and adulation than the suckers and morons who seek to emulate them. If anything, that message ought to be liberating. But here we all are, becoming increasingly narcissistic and self-regarding with every generation. Everybody wants to be something special, to bask in the spotlight, to claim the attentions of others. We all have a little bit of Rupert Pupkin inside us, and we’re getting more and more like him as time goes by.