Oh my God, do y’all want to see a really great film?
Then you need to do what I did earlier tonight. You need to sit down and watch Martin Scorsese’s 1983 media satire, The King of Comedy.
Want to know more about The King of Comedy? Then read on! But be aware that there are spoilers in the review below!
The King of Comedy tells the story of … well, it actually tells the story of several people. On the one hand, it’s the story of Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis, who gives a performance that is so good that you might even forget that he directed The Day The Clown Cried), a comedian who has his own late night talk show. Jerry is a celebrity, the type who is mostly famous for being himself. He makes his living by interviewing people at night but, in his daily life, he struggles to interact with the world at large. Whenever Jerry steps outside, people start yelling at him. When he walks away from one elderly fan, she responds by screaming insults at him. If Jerry seems to be paranoid, it’s because he has good reason to be.
For instance, Masha (a chillingly unhinged performance from Sandra Bernhard) is obsessed with him. When we first see Masha, she is jumping inside of Jerry’s limousine and refusing to leave. When she finally gets a chance to be alone with her idol, her manner alternates between desire and hostility. She may love Jerry but she could just as easily kill him.
And then there’s Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Rupert is the character who brings Jerry and Masha together. He’s a stand-up comedian, the self-described “king of comedy.” He’s convinced that he can be a star if he can just get on Jerry’s show. Rupert spends his time imagining the great friendship that he and Jerry could have, if only Jerry would let him on TV. In his mind, he plays out the scene in which Jerry begs Rupert to take over the show. Of course, in reality, Rupert lives in his mother’s basement and is surrounded by card-board cutouts of celebs that he will never meet. When we first see Rupert, his only real skill seems to be the ability to get on everyone’s last nerve.
It’s a little hard to believe now but, when De Niro started his career, he almost exclusively played fuck-ups. True, he may have won an Oscar for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. But even while he was playing Vito, he was also playing the erratic and perpetually in debt Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. In Taxi Driver, he was the delusional Travis Bickle and, in Raging Bull, he was a boxer who managed to alienate just about everyone in the world before finally ending up as an obese self-parody. But, out of all the fuck-ups that the young(ish) Robert De Niro played, perhaps none was a bigger fuck-up than Rupert Pupkin.
Rupert Pupkin is a character whose sole purpose in life seems to be to make other people cringe with embarrassment. He is the type of guy who will always come on too strong and say the wrong thing. Even when Rupert manages to meet Jerry, he is so annoying that Jerry can barely wait to get away from him. He is the type who asks if you want to see a picture of his “pride and joy” and then shows you a picture of two bottles of dishwashing liquid. It undoubtedly took some courage to so fully commit to such an off-putting character but that’s exactly what De Niro did. Rupert is perhaps one of the most annoying characters in cinematic history and yet, perhaps because he’s played by Robert De Niro, you can’t help but feel sorry for him. You never exactly like him. But you can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for him. He is just so clueless!
Of course, what Rupert lacks in common sense, he makes up for in ambition. He truly believes that he’s destined to be the king of comedy and if he and Masha have to kidnap Jerry Langford for that to happen, so be it. It is perhaps not surprising that Rupert and Masha would kidnap Jerry and threaten to kill him unless Rupert is invited to appear on the show. What is surprising is the fact, once we finally see Rupert’s act, we discover that it’s not as bad as we were expecting:
Apparently, when the film was first released, there was some controversy over whether or not Rupert actually appeared on TV and became a star or if it was just another of his delusions. What’s funny is that there wouldn’t be any controversy today. In 1983, the idea of someone going to such extremes to be famous may have seemed over-the-top. In 2016, however, we all know Rupert would eventually end up with his own reality show. In its way, The King of Comedy is one of the most prophetic films ever made.
The King of Comedy is a great film that, even after all these years, still deserves to be seen. In fact, it’s probably even more relevant today than when it was first released.