Film Discussion

The King of Comedy – Throwback 40

I participated in a previous rewatch of The King of Comedy for one reason. I kept thinking about the film’s ending. So much so I couldn’t sleep. I found it resting in my head taking up real estate. I rewatched the final moments on YouTube that night. I rewatched the film in its entirety soon after. There’s something so unsettling about the whole setup. From protagonist Rupert Pupkin’s awkward body language to the discordant theme music. A disembodied, overly pleasant voice announces him to an unseen audience. The crowd’s laughter feels canned. Then there’s a blink and you miss it moment when the facade drops. Just before the screen goes black, Rupert’s face settles back into remarkable seriousness. The king for a night is still a lifetime schmuck. For a split second, he knows it.

 The ending burrows into your head. Much like a lot of the film. This isn’t just me saying this. Film critic Roger Ebert described the whole film as painful. Detractors of the film wrote about its lack of cathartic release, unlike director Martin Scorsese’s 70s companion Taxi Driver (1976). The King of Comedy is at times a darker film. There’s more bite to it. The film suggests that the psychosis on screen is funny. A black comedy in which the deluded amateur comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) decides to stalk and kidnap his idol Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), all for a shot at fame. From the very beginning amongst the claustrophobic cloud of seasoned autograph hounds, it details how many people are like Rupert. And how they are all in such proximity to even yourself. But it took something like the advent of the internet for a cold shower realisation of how precise The King of Comedy is. It is razor sharp.

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Martin Scorsese took on The King of Comedy after the release of one of his most defining features, Raging Bull (1980). After Raging Bull, the director felt the slate needed to be wiped clean. Robert De Niro had previously tried to pitch to him The King of Comedy in the 1970s. Scorsese had refused. He felt too close to the material. However, much like the Pupkin character, De Niro persisted through to the 80s. Scorsese decided to go for it. Considering The King of Comedy is one of the last vestiges of the auteur-driven movies of the previous era.

The King of Comedy certainly is a palate cleanser. Something that stood out in Scorsese’s filmography for many cinemagoers. A flop upon its first release, Rupert Pupkin’s aggressive, always “on” persona appeared to be a turn-off for many. In a 2016 Vanity Fair article about the film’s creation, Scorsese claimed he didn’t like what he saw in the movie when making it. Partly because saw much of himself within Rupert. As they entered an age of glossy, high-concept productions, those who saw it might have felt a little bit like the filmmaker. Wondering how they fit into the equation of this catalogue of isolated characters. Where is the escapism? The release? It’s called The King of Comedy. Where were the laughs?

© 1982 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The writer of the film, Paul D. Zimmerman noted“I think people knew the movie was funny as they were watching it, but they didn’t feel safe enough to laugh. When you laugh, you’re defenceless, so you need a context of reassurance. King of Comedy had such a climate of danger that people didn’t allow themselves to laugh. That confused the studio. They didn’t know how to promote it.”

How could they ever? The King of Comedy is funny. But not in the straightforward way of lesser comedies. Its humour is dark, almost absurdist cringe comedy, that is far more common now than at the time the film was made. Scorsese litters the film with moments determined to try and make a viewer squirm. The opening segment in which Rupert saves Jerry from unhinged stalker Martha lying in wait in his car becomes a bizarre double bluff. In “saving” Jerry from the unstable fan, Rupert spies the chance to pitch his act to evidently unimpressed Jerry. It’s the type of “Why would you do that?” moment more commonplace in the single-camera sitcoms of now.

In one scene an older fan shifts from loving to loathsome without missing a beat as Jerry politely refuses to write an autograph. The switch is as brutal as it is unexpected. Hoping someone gets cancer shouldn’t be funny, but the timing is so on point that one can be shocked into laughter. Critic Vincent Canby wrote succulently in his review: “One of the ways in which ”The King of Comedy” works so effectively is in the viewer’s uncertainty whether it’s going to wind up as terrifyingly as is always possible. It’s full of laughs, but under all of the comic situations is the awful suspicion that our laughter is going to be turned against us, like a gun.” Much like After Hours (1985) three years later, Scorsese mines humour out of the grimiest of places.

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There’s honesty in the wells that the filmmaker digs in. The King of Comedy originally came onto the scene when stand-up wasn’t what it is now. The film certainly strikes harder now with the advent of social media. Unconsciously The King of Comedy is a precursor to today’s attention economy. When the film flopped on release, it might have been down to the audiences put off by its aggression. Add to this the film, like Taxi Driver, is a painfully lonely story.

Terrence Rafferty writes in a 2021 Sight and Sound piece on the film about how the aesthetics display the isolation and lack of basic human connection in each character. Something that people possibly weren’t ready for as they hurtled through the glossy, materialistic decade of the 1980s. The static camera and unsettling mise-en-scène of the film are a lot more aligned with the social media era, where we’ve all become our own talk show hosts. The sight of Rupert drinking in the faux applause of a pictured audience is not too dissimilar to watching a Tik-Toker recording their self-trained persona in disembodied silence in real-time, before posting to a sea of unseen followers. At times it’s difficult to dismiss the eerie similarities.

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In the 2016 Vanity Fair article, the more troubling aspect of Scorsese claiming that he didn’t like seeing so much of himself in the movie, is that whatever Scorsese saw in Pupkin was lying dormant in so many others. The same article likens The King of Comedy to the rise of Donald Trump. But the real fear is how Rupert Pupkin is in so many “content creators”. Driven to succeed not by their talent, but by the desire for fame.

Robert De Niro’s flamboyant, always “on” performance digs into what makes the film so frightful as well as funny. Completely ignorant of everything save for his own deluded belief in his talent, Pupkin’s ears are only open to his own voice. De Niro creates a suffocating persona. A needling and obnoxious gnat of a man. Yet the faux charm De Niro infuses the character with makes him relentlessly engaging in every scene. Scorsese has remarked that Pupkin is the favourite of his collaborations with De Niro, and it’s not hard to see why. Rupert is indeed the final form of the manic obsessives that the duo enjoyed creating in the earlier segment of their careers. 

© 1982 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

This is not to say that the film’s co-stars are overshadowed by such an all-encompassing performance. Sandra Bernhard deserves a huge amount of credit for the unpredictable, manic energy she brings to the character of Masha. The embodiment of what we now call a “stan”, Bernhard’s crazed fan is only mached by Sharon Stone (Casino) and Lorraine Bracco (Goodfellas) in Scorsese’s back catalogue of female performances. Rounding up the trio of performances is Jerry Lewis. Like the other characters, he also doesn’t listen to anyone. Mostly because he doesn’t need to due to his fame. And yet his sour, unmoved face while watching the insanity unravel around him is an absolute picture.

Terrence Rafferty’s BFI article says that “It’s De Niro as Rupert Pupkin whose face holds the screen for most of The King of Comedy, right up to the final image, and it’s a face with no history, nothing to document.” This line almost unconsciously fortifies the parallel between Rupert Pupkin and the “content creator” we have now. Rafferty goes further, saying The King of Comedy yields nothing, just characters defined by a culture grown so dense, so overpowering, that the very idea of development seems ludicrous.” With that line of thought, should we be surprised at the number of people not even out of their teenage years providing sage wellbeing advice safe in the environment of their family home? Much like Pupkin having to yell out to his loud yet unseen mother, while he rehearses his skits to nobody. Only now we can edit ourselves. Distorting human connection even further.

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The King of Comedy feels so prescient of where we are now 40 years later with the terminally online brought closer to their celebrity orbits while gaining mass followings themselves. Allowing them to become equally as popular. It’s also concerning to see a well-known comedian attacked on stage – regardless of what one thinks of their politics. Then again, for a film which was then felt partly shaped by a failed presidential assassination attempt, should we be so shocked that real life is borrowing back from art?

Scorsese himself makes an unsettling observation about Pupkin which only brings us even closer to him: “No, not really, except that he becomes successful without being good. He’s good enough. That’s the most unsettling part, that he’s good enough.” This brings things back to those final moments. After everything that’s occurred, Rupert seemingly gets his 15 minutes of fame. When the face falls it feels like a moment of realisation. What if this is all just a grift? What will Rupert do then? We know what he’s already capable of. So, what happens next? How good is his good enough? Until then it’s Rupert Pupkin’s world and we are content-creating in it.

The King of Comedy was released in the USA on 18th February 1983.

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