Release Date: February 18th, 1983 (US limited)
Genre: Comedy; Drama
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis
From the moment Robert De Niro’s eccentric autograph-hunter Rupert Pupkin hops his way inside the limousine of talk show host Jerry Langford, The King of Comedy sizzles with motor mouth-induced panache. This isn’t the cynical nor the blunt outing that we have come to expect from Martin Scorsese. Instead, it is a light entry into comedy hall of fame, one that flaunts a relevant satirical backbone and a truly impervious performance from the director’s right-hand man De Niro. Proceedings are aided by a snappy screenplay, energetic direction and brisk editing, but this is absolutely a one-man show. Elements of subtle psychosis are explored through the pitfalls of rejection but, at heart, The King of Comedy is simply journey of hilarious wit, De Niro its perfect driver.
Rupert Pupkin’s (Robert De Niro) dream is to become a successful comedian plying his trade on a personal talk show. He spends many a day persistently practising routines and his evenings glued to the rear entrance of stage-doors, impatiently awaiting the signature of a celebrity (you get the sense anyone will do). Upon receiving a bout of half-hearted vindication from Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and a less than half-hearted promise that Langford will consider his talents, Rupert believes he has finally achieved the break he has been after. Only, the aspirer’s ambition far outweighs his common sense.
Robert De Niro has never been funnier. Rupert exists on the opposite end of the mentalist spectrum from Travis Bickle, though De Niro portrays each persona with equal amounts of verve and precision. Just like Travis, Rupert demands our utmost attention and more, though this time it’s as a direct result of an incessant need to talk his way into and out of every situation. De Niro effortlessly channels a man who always appears to be precariously teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, yet someone who still retains a peculiar air of discipline. His mannerisms are exceptional, displaying the actor’s decisive comedic timing. Interactions with Jerry’s receptionist are particularly sterling, not to mention an awkward card reading scene that encapsulates Rupert’s mantra: purposeful without structure. The film is less interesting when De Niro is absent from the screen, not because the remaining elements are poor, but because De Niro’s presence is simply that enticing.
Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay scorches with immensely delivered dialogue. It throws up a satirical funny bone that harbours the on-going effects of celebrity obsession, on both the obsessive and those being obsessed over. Rupert is an in-over-his-head autograph collector (“The more scribbled the name, the bigger the fame”), but his problem is a far greater one: he’s a frenetic attention-seeker. If it’s not a woman, it’s a talk show host, or even a wall covered in painted figures resembling an applauding audience — the latter is one of the film’s most disconcerting and telling moments, echoing the infallible pitfalls of rejection. Though admirably gag-full, The King of Comedy also ushers in an eerie strand that strikes an even greater nerve as we learn more about our wannabe comedian. For a split second, the culture of mania becomes humane.
We begin to feel sorry for Rupert, who is ignored by all those whom he admires. When Rupert sees the walls in Jerry’s office are painted red, desperation asserts that he wears a red tie during the next visit — anything to impress. The film encourages us to get on board with a man who feels hard done by in life and who subsequently uses this as justification to overbear. Rejection manifests in similar forms to those of modern denial; “company policy” loopholes, an assistant reverberating condescending tones and emitting dissociative remarks. There’s no doubting De Niro’s impact in terms of making his character user-friendly, but credit must also go towards how Scorsese and company present the character. After all, it’s easier to engage and spend time with somebody who you like, as opposed to a person less cherished.
At its most rampant when De Niro is in view, The King of Comedy peaks by way of the humour expelled. Believing the hype — mainly his own — Rupert exclaims extraordinary fact after extraordinary fact in such a nonchalant manner that we begin to wonder whether or not they’re actually true (“That’s Woody Allen… he’s a friend of mine”). Other amusing sequences include Rupert’s uncanny resilience that sees him consistently refer to strangers by first name as if on a first-name basis — he’s a bit like the annoying drunk seemingly frozen in time and on repeat. Even his attire is so silly that it garners laughter: from the uncoordinated suit and tie to the pristine hair and questionable moustache. Listen out for De Niro’s dynamite “MAM!” too.
It’s blatantly obvious that Scorsese cares about his characters, particular his lead here whom he treats with affection and injects with more well-roundedness than is custom for such a psychotic individual. This caressing nature is reflected in the film’s overall image, one far from the brutal shades of grey seen in Goodfellas or the not so subtle shades of black and white in The Wolf of Wall Street. Typical of Scorsese, The King of Comedy does arrive in tandem with an inert pizazz, though not the glossy kind seen in the aforementioned outings, but rather an artificial glamour mirroring the inauthentic essence of show business on display. Proceedings rumble as they near the inevitable and dramatic conclusion, which sees an utterly outstanding monologue that tows the line between funny and pained. It’s the golden bow on a succinctly wrapped present.
The other performances range from very good to decent. Jerry Lewis is Jerry Langford, a man devoid of any cheer despite his lofty position in comedy. Ironically, the same spot a lively Rupert vies for. Though he plays the quintessential victim, Lewis’ pinpoint dismissive delivery assists in spinning the traditional roles. We cannot help but side with the guy who is trying his damnedest to etch some semblance of enthusiasm from his successful counterpart. Sandra Bernhard isn’t quite as effective as Rupert’s fellow maniac Masha, though her character suffers from being too one-dimensional, an issue increasingly flagged up in the presence of a well-rounded Rupert. In fairness, the pair display quite the frazzled dynamic when together.
Though it’s not as scoping as many of his other outings, The King of Comedy is definitely one of Martin Scorsese’s best and most intriguing. Spearheaded by Robert De Niro doing his best funny-man-cum-insane impression, the outing spawns diatribes of electricity and opts to stand out from the crowd of convention. “Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”
Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox