The King of Comedy

the king of comedy

The King of Comedy is a 1983 American black comedy film starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis, and directed by Martin Scorsese. The subject of the movie is celebrity worship and the American media culture.

DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, a stage-door autograph hound and aspiring stand-up comedian whose ambition far exceeds his talent. After meeting Jerry Langford (Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, Rupert believes his ‘big break’ has finally come. He attempts to get a place on the show but is continually rebuffed by Langford’s staff and, finally, by Langford himself.

Along the way, Rupert indulges in elaborate and obsessive fantasies where he and Langford are colleagues and friends. He even takes a date, Rita, to Langford’s home, uninvited, trying to impress her. When the straight approach does not work, Rupert hatches a kidnapping plot with the help of Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a stalker who is also obsessed with Langford. As ransom, Rupert demands that he be given the opening spot on that evening’s ‘Jerry Langford Show’ (guest hosted by Tony Randall), and that the show be broadcast in normal fashion. The network brass, lawyers, and the FBI agree, with the understanding that Langford will be released once the show airs. Between the taping of the show and the broadcast, Masha has her ‘dream date’ with Langford, who is duct-taped to a chair in her parents’ Manhattan townhouse. Jerry convinces her to untie him and escapes.

Rupert’s stand-up routine is well received. He closes by confessing to the audience that he kidnapped Jerry Langford in order to break into show business. The studio audience laughs, thinking that it is a part of his act. Rupert responds by saying, ‘Tomorrow you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.’ The movie closes with a news report of Rupert’s release from prison, set to a montage of storefronts stocking his ‘long awaited’ autobiography, ‘King For a Night.’ The report informs that Rupert still considers Jerry Langford his mentor and friend, and that he and his agent are currently weighing several ‘attractive offers.’ The final scene shows Rupert taking the stage for an apparent TV special with a live audience and an announcer enthusiastically introducing and praising him. It is noteworthy that the curtain backdrop in this scene resembles prison bars.

After ‘Raging Bull’ was completed, Scorsese was keen to do a pet project of his, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ and wanted De Niro to play Jesus Christ. De Niro was not interested and preferred their next collaboration to be a comedy. He had purchased the rights of a script by a film critic, Paul D. Zimmerman. Scorsese pondered whether he could face shooting another film, particularly with a looming strike by the Writers Guild of America. Producer Arnon Milchan knew he could do the project away from Hollywood interference by filming entirely on location in New York and deliver it on time with the involvement of a smaller film company.

Scorsese’s first choice for talk show host Jerry Langford was Johnny Carson. Carson refused the role, claiming ‘you know that one take is enough for me.’ The entire Rat Pack was also considered—specifically Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—before a decision was made to select Martin’s old partner, Jerry Lewis. In the biography/overview of his work, ‘Scorsese on Scorsese,’ the director had high praise for Lewis, stating that during their first conversation before shooting, Lewis was extremely professional and assured him before shooting that there would be no ego clashes or difficulties. Scorsese said he felt Lewis’ performance in the film was vastly underrated and deserved more acclaim.

According to an interview with Lewis in ‘People’ magazine, he claimed that Scorsese and De Niro employed method acting tricks, including making a slew of anti-Semitic epithets during the filming in order to ‘pump up Lewis’s anger.’ Lewis described making the film as a pleasurable experience and noted that he got along well with both Scorsese and De Niro. Lewis said he was invited to collaborate on certain aspects of the script dealing with celebrity life. He suggested an ending in which Rupert Pupkin kills Jerry, but was turned down. As a result, Lewis thought that the film, while good, did not have a ‘finish.’ In an interview for the DVD, Scorsese stated that Jerry Lewis suggested that the brief scene where Jerry Langford is accosted by an old lady for autographs, who screams ‘you should only get cancer!’ when Lewis politely rebuffs her, was based on a real-life incident that happened to him.

Film scholar David Bordwell, writing in ‘Film Viewer’s Guide,’ mentioned the (un)reality of the ending as a topic for debate. A number of scenes in the film—Rupert and Jerry in the restaurant, Jerry meeting Rupert after having listened to his tape and calling him a genius, Rupert getting married ‘live’ on Jerry’s show—exist solely in Rupert’s imagination, and Bordwell suggested that some viewers would think the final sequence is another fantasy. In his commentary on DVD of ‘Black Narcissus,’ Scorsese stated that Michael Powell’s films influenced ‘The King of Comedy’ in its conception of fantasy. Scorsese said that Powell always treated fantasy as no different than reality, and so made fantasy sequences as realistic as possible. Scorsese suggests that Rupert Pupkin’s character fails to differentiate between his fantasies and reality in much the same way. Scorsese sought to achieve the same with the film so that, in his words, the ‘fantasy is more real than reality.’

The film was met by mixed reviews and a poor box office showing. David Ehrenstein, author of ‘The Scorsese Picture,’ stated that ‘The King of Comedy’ ‘cuts too close to the bone for either large-scale mass audience approval or unanimous mainstream critical acclaim.’ He noted how far apart the film stood to other films made in the early years of Reagan’s America which the film presented a very critical portrayal of (although the script was written well before Reagan’s election, and shooting began less than five months after Reagan took office). ‘At a time when the film world piles on simple-minded sentiment in thick gooey gobs, a picture like ‘The King of Comedy’ appears a frontal assault. The triumph of the ‘little guy’ is revealed to be nothing more than lumpen neo-Fascist blood lust.’

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