In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is an amazing film. Decades before The Office made cringe comedy a recognizable form Scorsese’s film was up there. Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe comedian who kidnaps a real life talk show host played Jerry, by Jerry Lewis with the help of deranged fan Sandra Bernhard. Before we get anywhere near that, Pupkin tries to waylay Jerry, diving into his car, preparing a comedy tape and stalking him in his office. All the while, he indulges in a fantasy life where Jerry is a great friend and it is Rupert who gets hassled in restaurants for his autograph.
De Niro has never been better, especially because this places him outside of the cool movie star image that roles in Godfather Part Two had placed him. Yes, Travis Bickle might be a dysfunctional psycho but he looks like De Niro and gets a date with Cybil Shepherd. Rupert is absolutely delusional but his naivety is also pitiable and human. He has a constant fund of optimism that persists no matter what the circumstances are. And the genius of the movie is that he isn’t a bad comedian. He’s actual got quite an astute line in observational comedy.
And his act isn’t an imitation of Jerry’s but there’s something in there that is painful and autobiographical. But that’s assuming the act we see at the end of the movie is not just another part of the delusion. Incidentally, I don’t think it is. This is why Rupert and the film insists on us watching it in a bar with other witnesses. Rupert needs to assure himself other people have seen it. The ultimate validation.
There are moments of comic genius. Sandra Bernhard’s hilarious nut job and her sweater she knits for Jerry. The home invasion Rupert perpetrates. The fan who upset at Jerry turns on a nickel from adoring to shouting ‘You should only get cancer’, suggested by Lewis himself and based on a real experience. And it is Jerry Lewis’ film also. Quietly, we get a portrait of an almost silent man, utterly alienated and lonely, twisted by the bitter need to stay top dog while utterly distrustful of his fans and everyone around him. The tragic irony is that Jerry seems a better person in Rupert’s fantasies as well. And even though he is in the position Rupert is aiming for, Jerry is utterly miserable.
Coming out in 1982, The King of Comedy flopped. The tag line – This is no laughing matter – exactly summed up the uncomfortable tragicomedy of embarrassment. It was a style no one was ready for yet. But its savage satire on celebrity culture seems more prescient with each passing year.