When the name “Martin Scorsese” comes to mind, so do a few movies. Usually, a list of a top/most well known four will include some combination of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. The prolific director has released at least one movie in every decade since the 60’s, but there’s one decade that found Scorsese breaking away from type the most.
In the 80’s, he released Raging Bull, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The King of Comedy. Save for Raging Bull, every other movie mentioned was a departure from the crime and/or historical figures and settings he has made a name on throughout his career. The King of Comedy kicked off in earnest this more experimental, “black sheep” phase of his career, and this year (at least in the states) it turned 40 years old. What better time to revisit this act?
THE STORY: Rupert “Not Pumpkin” Pupkin (Robert de Niro) is a struggling, mid-30’s comedian who believes in earnest he is every bit as good as the comedians getting the TV airtime, like Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). The only thing he hasn’t had that others have received is a shot to prove his skills. For a time now, he’s waited for the right opportunity to introduce himself to Langford, believing his big break will come if he is able to have a conversation. By hook or by crook—and with a heavy assist from a nebulous “friend” in Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Rupert has a conversation with Langford, who gives him a business card to call his agent. Sparse details be damned, Rupert believes he’s on the track to stardom, even imagining his future as “The King of Comedy” after one convo with Langford and selling longtime love interest, bartender Rita (Diahnne Abbott) on this reversal of fortune.
There’s only one problem: That call leads to nothing, and despite Rupert’s dogged determination and denial in taking a hint, his pleas to have a segment on Langford’s show are ineffective. Rupert’s behavior becomes more and more uncomfortable, and his fantasy essentially is indistinguishable from reality. By hook or by crook, Rupert will be The King of Comedy, even if he’s the only one laughing.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Upon its release, The King of Comedy wasn’t received too well. No character is inherently likable, and some people even felt it promoted a poor message pertaining to the pursuit of fame, that the pursuit is defensible irregardless of the journey in-between as long as one succeeds in pursuing it. It is only in the decades following where the screenplay, written by Paul D. Zimmerman, feels most relevant and timely, especially in the 2010’s and on.
On one side of the coin, the film is a simple showing of someone being a prisoner of their own success. We see Jerry Langford (not a stretch, but Lewis brings a phenomenal cynicism and weariness to this role) constantly harassed whether it’s every night following his show, walking up and down New York City attempting to be a commoner (this hasn’t aged the best, but the 80’s were a different time and I digress), or in his apartment decompressing and wondering how fanatics got a hold of his phone number. Zimmerman and Scorsese pose a simple question: If this is the result, is fame all it’s cracked up to be?
On the other hand, The King of Comedy never makes a specific reference in story, but it is clearly a story of two people suffering greatly from mental health issues. For Masha, her character details are sparse, though allusions to addiction and schizophrenia are present. For Pupkin, his delusions are as real as reality to him, and Scorsese lets the audience in on this pretty quickly when he begins a scene seeing Pupkin at lunch with Langford. It’s very vivid, the conversation moves, the jokes fly frequently, yet it is revealed that Pupkin is having a conversation with himself, dreaming up how his pitch to Langford will go. Pupkin takes it a step further, selling Rita on his impending stardom well before he’s even secured a real meeting with Langford.
It only gets worse from here; it takes time but the climax sees Pupkin detail his troubled upbringing, played for laughs and delivered exquisitely by De Niro, but it is at this point where most of Pupkin’s problems can be traced to his childhood. What Scorsese and Zimmerman leave open is the idea that Pupkin might truly be as good of a comedic talent as he thinks he is, or maybe he’s simply a mid-tier comic, but his inability to want to put in the work and grind at city comedy clubs puts him in this holding pattern. Which is sort of ironic because he shows so much hustle in trying to make this meeting with Langford happen. If only his energy were used more constructively.
A GREAT MOMENT: An easy one, the home invasion. In it, Pupkin arrives ready for a weekend stay with his date Rita at Langford’s doorstep for a party Pupkin claims Langford invited him to. He says as much to Langford’s butler, who is super confused. Pupkin makes himself at home, detailing all the history each of his idol’s photos contains. They do some more exploring of his house, put on some music, dance, and even have drinks before Langford returns.
As one could imagine, Langford is far from pleased, with a stone cold look that suggests he’s ready to kill. Pupkin, unperturbed (or unaware), keeps going on and makes every bit of their conversation into a joke. Finally, it crescendos with Langford demanding Pupkin and Rita off his premises, only for Pupkin to return before leaving stating that he’s going to work fifty times harder and ultimately be fifty times more famous than Langford.
Scorsese and Zimmerman nail this scene. It has little moments of ironic hilarity, such as Pupkin getting uncomfortable when Rita wants to dance while totally OK with the fact that he showed up to a man’s house unannounced. Moments like Pupkin’s ability to pivot Langford’s anger into comedic material actually show his impressive wit as a stand-up talent. And lastly, few moments in cinema top the cringe present here. But it is the range of De Niro that stands out most, and his proficiency in making something that was mostly improvised come off as meticulously written is special. You can see why Scorsese believes this is De Niro’s best performance under his direction.
THE TALLY: When Joker came out, it had a lot of people saying it was an updated movie to this one, but The King of Comedy has clearly influenced other features prior to that, from Nightcrawler to The Cable Guy to Death to Smoochy, highlighting troubled characters who are the heroes in their own stories. Like a top tier comedian, this movie is timeless. It’s What to Watch, and it is currently streaming (as of this writing) on Hulu.
Photo credits go to ifccenter.com, tribecafilm.com, impawards.com, and IMDB.com.
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