It’s understandable if some viewers were a little surprised to learn Martin Scorsese was behind the comedic masterpiece that was last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street. While many of his films have had their fair share of black humor, he had never made what could be considered an outright comedy. The closest he had in the past was The King of Comedy, out now for the first time on Blu-ray. But this is no casual laugh riot. Quite the contrary, this 1982 film is among Scorsese’s most challenging features. Even with a dose of straight comedy, particularly early on, the film’s key themes and the increasing desperation of its primary characters are far from simply comical. Instead, The King of Comedy ends up as a cultural commentary wrapped in a darkly humorous veil, a disturbing work of discomfort, and an extraordinary motion picture.
In a 2013 interview included on the disc, recorded at the Tribeca Film Festival’s restoration premiere of the movie, Scorsese and Robert De Niro play it coy about even calling The King of Comedy a “comedy.” Both are reluctant to place it in the genre, and insist they never really intended to make it funny. This, however, is somewhat contradicted when Jerry Lewis later joins the two on stage (“You two do good together,” he tells the actor and director). Lewis recalls Scorsese having asthma attacks from laughing so hard and they all note a good deal of improv and behind-the-scenes antics. Even if they don’t want to call it a comedy, it’s certainly still funny. Perhaps Scorsese compromises best, dubbing the film a “comedy of manners.”
Stating he “didn’t quite get it” when he first read Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay in 1974, Scorsese was convinced to do the film by De Niro, who found the material more appealing. From there, in their fifth collaboration, the two discovered the film as they made it, according to Scorsese. De Niro as Rupert Pupkin is one of the legendary actor’s greatest and most underrated roles. It’s unlike anything he has ever done before or since, and while he has given fine performances in many excellent films that followed, it’s perhaps only with slight hyperbole that one could say his turn here was his last truly astonishing achievement.
Pupkin (commonly misspelled and mispronounced, as he frequently notes) is a budding comedian with pipe dreams of late-night television stardom, in the fashion of his idol, Jerry Langford (Lewis), a Johnny Carson-esque personality of tremendous popularity. For now, Pupkin settles with a makeshift stage in his mother’s basement (Scorsese’s mother plays his mom). There, with life-size cardboard cutouts of Langford and Liza Minnelli, he acts out his greatest hits and dreams, with show music, recorded applause, and a laugh track. A bold encounter with Langford leads to Pupkin’s naïve belief that his hero is willing to lend a hand and give the aspiring performer his big chance. To be fair, Langford does seem genuinely encouraging, even if we know he’s simply placating Pupkin in order to get away from him.
Somewhat unusual for a “Martin Scorsese Picture,” there is comparatively little camera movement in The King of Comedy. This was a conscious decision on Scorsese’s part, who intended to give the film a more sedentary look, not unlike television (at least in the early 1980s). This stationary intimacy results in some powerfully awkward viewing, whereby Scorsese has the camera just sitting back, observing, not flinching or looking away. The undercurrent of potential violence that runs through the film, coupled with Pupkin’s sympathetic desperation, is excruciatingly effective. Scorsese speaks of the “levels of hostility” present in the film, and the comparison to Travis Bickle, De Niro’s character from Taxi Driver, is apparent. Pupkin’s rapid path from admirable confidence, to brazen action, to sheer insanity is troubling, and with the proper trigger, he only seems a block away from Bickle’s vicious neighborhood. Shades of Travis are particularly strong when Pupkin barges back into Jerry’s office building after being kicked out. He doesn’t seem the violent type, but his belligerent drive suggests the prospect of anything being possible. His passive-aggressive interaction with Langford’s secretary is indecent, his blind optimism having given way to egotistical defiance. Pupkin embodies what happens when mere fandom becomes a frightening fixation.
Things come to head after Pupkin and Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the bartender he’s in love with, audaciously show up to Langford’s house. The justifiably perturbed television star chides Pupkin with some much-needed brutal honesty. Now accompanied by his partner in crime and celebrity obsession, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin kidnaps Langford at gunpoint (albeit with a fake gun), presuming that with the star as a hostage, the television studio will surely give into his demands — he will now appear on late-night TV. Left alone with Langford, the eccentric Masha reveals herself to be an equally deranged fan. However, she is more obsessed with Langford the man than with being a star, and her threats are more along the lines of sexual molestation than violent brutality.
Remarkably, Pupkin achieves his goal. He’s on Jerry’s show long enough to perform his standup routine before he is promptly arrested. He has no regrets, though: “It’s better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime,” he declares. As it turns out, he’s going to get what he wants after all. He serves a reduced sentence and becomes an overnight celebrity, with money, a book, which will be turned into a movie, and his own television special. Like with Travis in Taxi Driver, the destination to fame and admiration can have a curious path.
The characters are complicated in The King of Comedy, as they regularly are in Scorsese’s films. Even with his rudely inappropriate impudence, Pupkin is not totally unlikable, at least because he’s so pathetic. He gives his own autograph to Rita as a gift and his “office” is a Times Square pay phone, but his dreams are earnest, which makes his reality all the more distressing. The fantasy sequences where we see him and Jerry interacting as he one day imagines are not sad because we know it will never happen; they’re sad because Pupkin continues to think it will. Still, there’s no denying that he’s annoying and a nuisance.
On the other side of this, Jerry Langford doesn’t quite elicit sympathy without issue. He is dismissive and rude in his own way, and though he does put up with a lot, especially from his fans, ranging from decently complimentary to the overbearingly oppressive, these are nevertheless demands that go with the territory of being a celebrity. Lewis apparently knew where Langford was coming from, basing some of the incidents on what happened to him in real life, but audiences may have a harder time identifying. It’s clear that what Pupkin does is improper and, eventually, illegal, but Langford isn’t exactly a bundle of charm. This blurring of “good” and “bad” characters is typical of Scorsese, with parallels in his work up to and including The Wolf of Wall Street.
Despite similarities with later films, by Scorsese or others, nearly all involved with The King of Comedy contend, with good cause, that it is unique, and what is more, that it is the last of its kind. Scorsese, looking at the film in terms of post-Heaven’s Gate Hollywood filmmaking, when personal, controversial, idiosyncratic movies were few and far between (as opposed to in the 1970s), states that The King of Comedy is one of the last vestiges of “that type of picture.” It’s the “last really great film about culture,” according to Bernhard. A great film about culture, yes, but not the last one, though it was ahead of its time when it comes to the precariousness and fascination of television celebrity.
— Jeremy Carr