There is no denying that The King of Comedy had so much to say at the time of its UK release in 1983. A biting satire on celebrity obsession and the equal obsession to become a star, what must have seemed like a dark comedy then now has the look of something that, like 1998’s The Truman Show, was akin to a dark prophecy that has only grown in power as the years have gone on.
There has always been a dark side to celebrity, and that darkness has frequently been filtered through those who put stock into their love for and devotion to those who appear to us through television and cinema screens. Even one of Scorsese and De Niro’s previous projects, Taxi Driver, led one viewer to attempt an assassination of the then-President of the United States Ronald Regan, after becoming obsessed with Jodie Foster and her performance in that movie.
On first glance, The King of Comedy might seem like a strange detour for Scorsese and De Niro in the early 80s. Their collaborations up to this point had been made up of explorations of crime; although Raging Bull explored toxic masculinity through the prism of boxer Jake La Motta, but one might look at The King of Comedy as a more lighter concoction compared to the dark, gritty heart that lay at the centre of characters such as La Motta, Travis Bickle, and Mean Streets‘ Johnny Boy, but the lightness of touch is all surface.
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Yes, one can see the influence of the film on something like the brilliant portrayed awkwardness that Ricky Gervais has brought to a lot of his projects, in particular, David Brent in The Office, and the film has since been mentioned, a lot, by Todd Phillips as being an influence on Joker, right down to De Niro appearing as a late-night television host.
Where Joker, however, also wears the influence of Taxi Driver and Bickle on its sleeve, there is very little tonally to compare this to the nightmarish neo-noir depiction of New York that was dreamed up on to the page by Paul Schrader and then brought to the screen by Scorsese. The film has a jaunty tone, made even more so by Robbie Robertson’s score, and De Niro’s performance feels less intense than those he had given in Scorsese’s previous films.
Appearances can be deceptive and while The King of Comedy stays on a sense of jauntiness throughout its running time and becomes increasingly funny as it goes on, the laughs and the narrative dive right into dark thematic territory. Scorsese himself makes another cameo appearance as he did in Taxi Driver, but it’s a much lighter performance than the uncomfortable levels of intensity he gave us when he was Travis Bickle’s customer/passenger, but it comes right in the middle of the kidnapping that takes up the third act.
De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin has only become more powerful as time has gone on. While there is no ‘You Talking to me?’ moment here or equivalent from Raging Bull when La Motta asks his brother did he sleep with his wife, the lighter tone and stylings here are masterfully hiding the darker ideas. This is essentially a film that builds itself on a cringe-worthy atmosphere at various points, almost to the point that Pupkin’s attempts to get his stand-up routine on television leave the viewer wanting to bury their heads in their hands to stop the embarrassment in any manner possible.
Those frequent visits to the offices of the Jerry Langford Show, the fantasies that he reenacts in his basement, all the while his mother (Scorsese’s very own mother whose voice is heard but who is never seen) shouts at him about being too loud, and the build-up of awkward cringe that never lets up until the final act, this is Scorsese and De Niro in a playful mode for sure, but this being them it’s filtered through a darkness that is very much theirs.
This isn’t just De Niro’s film; there’s also Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis. The former as Masha is even more dangerous than Pupkin. Rupert may have a sense of control to his actions, even as they grow unhinged, but our first encounter with Masha is her climbing her way into Langford’s car and beating her hands on the window. It’s a superb performance from Bernhard for sure.
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The revelation for many would have been Lewis. His Jim Carrey style antics of the ’60s, not to mention his famed collaborations with Dean Martin, give way to a more cynical withdrawn character here. His on-screen persona as Langford may be all Jimmy Carson, but he has to deal with obsessive fans, and bypassers on the street wishing cancer on him when all he wants to do is walk to work in peace and quiet. For anyone familiar with him from the original Nutty Professor, the more withdrawn and angry character here is a genuine shock.
The final act, however, is one of the best in the Scorsese/De Niro pantheon. Building itself up to kidnapping as Pupkin finally gets his way and ends up doing a stand-up routine on the show, it goes down a storm, but he still is arrested for kidnapping Langford and then we get to the final montage that leaves more questions than it does answers; Pupkin is arrested and yet his arrest, trial, conviction and subsequent best selling book keeps him in the public eye, and the final image of the film is the character hosting his own late-night television show.
Considered by many to be another fantasy like those that are dotted throughout the film, the ending has only become increasingly cynical and frighteningly real as the years have gone on. Pupkin has done terrible things and there’s no way he could possibly have succeeded on this level. Could he?
What if he did? After all, when you’re a star, they let you do anything.