Surely, the reason why The King of Comedy was such a colossal failure upon its release may have had more to do with its misleading title and, among other things, the casting of perennial funnyman Jerry Lewis in one of its leading roles. Indeed, David Denby’s 1983 criticism of the movie from the New York Times claimed that “The King of Comedy is a clever, sometimes brilliant movie, but it’s too bitter, too angry to make anyone laugh” – as if (surely!) the primary intention of the film and its director was to be funny. In retrospect, the film is prophetic and profound in many ways, some of which are quite surprising.
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), 34, works as a door-to-door messenger and dreams of being a beloved television comic. His dream is to appear as a featured guest on the most popular show in the country: a Johnny Carson-like late night talk show hosted by entertainer Jerry Langford (Lewis). After a series of setbacks and constant disappointments, Pupkin eventually resorts to kidnapping Langford with the aid of Langford’s stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) in order to make his dream come true and do his standup routine on national television.
The character of Pupkin is as ambivalent as Frankenstein’s monster; his creator is society itself. He is also an embodiment of American mediocrity, as a grown man living in his mother’s basement (traditionally an American symbol of failure), and one of Scorsese’s many alienated creatures, much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, spending most of his time alone, talking to himself, or his imaginary friends. Further, he has dressed his basement as a television studio, complete with cardboard cutouts of famous people and furnishings resembling those of his favourite TV show. One can only imagine the time and money he spent on converting his habitat to resemble an illusion of his fantasy; this may alternatively be seen as a work of love or a sign of Pupkin’s mental instability.
Another sequence has gained surprising new meanings: as he records a tape for Langford, in which he recites some of his material for evaluation, we are reminded of today’s podcasts that allow one to be heard by people all over the world and become an overnight sensation. This is an aspect worth considering. Television, at the time of the film, was the primary source of entertainment, communication, representation, and identification. Today, the internet fulfills such a role. Furthermore, Scorsese claimed that the visual style of The King of Comedy was inspired by Edwin S. Porter’s landmark film Life of an American Fireman (1903). (This unlikely influence is particularly evident in the scenes that take place in Pupkin’s basement.) Given the director’s knowledge of the history of the visual medium, it is not unlikely to imagine that he may have linked his lead character’s sensibilities to the creation of mass culture itself, which is often said to have originated from the birth of cinema, the new invention of the turn of the century that became increasingly popular at the time of Porter’s directorial activities. Hence, The King of Comedy is a film in which impressions are formed by the constant crossings and interlinking of past, present, and future.
The King of Comedy was written by Paul D. Zimmerman, a former Newsweek film critic, who wanted to write about the country’s growing obsession with celebrity culture. The narrative moves forward relentlessly, and admittedly, with no sense of urgency or tension. The plot itself is not where the ingeniousness of the story lies; this is to be otherwise found in its characterization and contours. As far as characterization is concerned, The King of Comedy works backward rather than forward. Throughout the movie, we know very little about Pupkin’s private life and we merely assume his personality basing our conclusions on superficial reception. (The same may be said about Misha, who nonetheless remains an interesting “McGuffin” rather than an engaging player in the movie.) It is only through Pupkin’s final monologue (which is full of grim and dark jokes) during which he tells the story of his life (right up to the point of admitting to Langford’s kidnapping), that we finally get to know him and the origins of his desires, which perhaps exceed his desire to be funny. On the other hand, we may choose to believe that he is making it all up; however, it is sometimes far more interesting not to be sure.
The King of Comedy is also a film about access and boundaries, another recurring theme in Scorsese’s works (think of that celebrated tracking shot at the Copacabana in Goodfellas, for instance). Celebrity equals access, which equals power and respect. The King of Comedy is constantly mired by the presence of doors that are permanently closed to those forsaken to being on the outside looking in. Yet, when it comes to television, the boundary has been broken from the very beginning: the authority of the architectural structures is violated in an abstract or even spiritual way. Though we somehow welcome TV images and the people in those images in our homes, the courtesy is, of course, one-sided. In a standout, cringeworthy scene, Pupkin invites himself (and his love interest) to Langford’s country home. The outcome is rather predictable – he is kicked out and Langford tells him that he only offered him to help him to get rid of him. Even then, Pupkin responds with an idiotic smile on his face as if he had entered the alternative reality of television – as if he was expecting all this to be a joke, and Langford might turn into his amicable and jokey TV character at any moment. In any case, this is another aspect of the film that would be worth discussing, and further, reveals the richness of its contours.
Scorsese once said that De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy is the best of any film he directed. In later years, De Niro would star in numerous comedy movies, distancing himself from the heavy roles of the first part of his career. But in this film, De Niro was never required to be funny; indeed, quite the opposite. The final performance balances itself somewhere between the comedic and the deeply tragic. It is truly a fine turn, and according to Zimmerman, this was because he “understood the bravery of Rupert Pupkin, his chutzpah, the simplicity of his motives. Bobby said he liked the single-minded sense of purpose. People speak of Bobby as an instinctive actor but he also understands these characters on an intellectual level. I think Bobby understood Rupert because he’s an obsessive person himself.” Jerry Lewis took a chance in his unusually serious turn as Langford. Used to playing an exaggeratedly, even fearlessly comedic sap, there might have been a little doubt that he would have been able to sustain a role that required him to be almost completely restrained. In the end, he proved to be perfectly capable of upsetting viewers’ expectations and frustrate whoever was unlucky enough to walk into the screening of the film at the time of its release expecting to see a comedy like The Nutty Professor. – ★★★★★
THE KING OF COMEDY || 1982, USA || Comedy || Directed by – Martin Scorsese / Produced by – Aaron Milchan / Written by – Paul D. Zimmerman / Cinematography – Fred Schuler / Edited by – Thelma Schoonmaker / Starring – Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall, Dihanne Abbott, Sandra Bernhardt / Running time: 109 mins.