King of Comedy – 1983

Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay Paul D. Zimmerman
Starring Robert DeNiro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard

Many takes on this film have centered on how closely it resembles Taxi Driver. In the same way that film focused on damaged people who were unhealthily drawn to the hem of the garment of someone that doesn’t acknowledge them on level, it also uses violence is used to even the image portrayed by the (antagonistic) protagonist and their target.

Where this one differs is the tone. We know early on that Scorsese is not interested in painting the town red. He just wants to give everyone a few shades of grey.

Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro) may be a bit more likable than Travis Bickle, but it doesn’t mean he represents something any less dangerous. Obsessive stalking culture gurgled to the surface of fandom in the early 80’s and has only become more inured in our society since. Famous people have become separated necessarily from those who objectify them. Like a bacteria evolving to survive against cold remedies, fans (and their cousins, Paparazzi) have come up with new ways to feed off those they adore.

The story is simple. Rupert Pupkin is leading a life of illusion. He follows along with the throngs of fans of Jerry (Lewis) Langford’s hit late night talk show. He pictures scenarios where he’s taken over for Langford and becomes the King of Comedy himself. His interactions with Langford are forced and superficial. Langford says whatever he thinks it will take to get Pupkin out of his life. Pupkin takes those words as a guarantee for a future spot on the show.

Lewis plays the talk show host with an alacrity that is amazing. He still insists on walking the streets of New York, but we can see it is a completely draining experience. In his office, he has some buffering to the chagrin of those who work for him. They have to put up with Rupert and those like him insisting that Jerry had arranged a meeting, or told them they had a spot waiting for them on the show.

Rupert has a girl he’s after, named Rita (played by then wife, Abbott). She used to be a beauty queen, now she tends bar and listens to Rupert’s clearly deranged prognostications of his future. One scene that is particularly effective is when Pupkin convinces her that they have both been invited by Langford to visit him at his country estate for a weekend. Langford is as surprised as his staff at their arrival and the tension is palpable.

As Rita watches the insanity unfold between Rupert’s and Jerry’s clashing realities, she snatches a momento that likely won’t be missed. She’s been taken for a ride and danced in a house she will never be able to afford. She’s just going to get out of this whatever she can.

Back to Rupert, he runs the course of his desperate mind, then he just decides to go for it. Working with another looney tunes traveller (Bernhard), they kidnap Langford on one of his walks through the city. He reveals a plan to get noticed and it works, for better or worse.

The plan allows him to finally play in front of the crowd he’d imagined in his head for some time. His act is actually pretty good on stage. It’s just real life at which he sucks. The two worlds meet in one perfect line, delivered to close his routine:

“…I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime.”

From here, of course he goes to jail. What happens after that can be debated. I am pretty sure his fate stayed closer to schmuck than it did king.

This is one of Scorsese’s lower key efforts, but it still has a deep resonance, all these years after it bombed. It tells a truth about life in the latter half of the 20th century that still rings. There are a whole lot of people in the crowd and there are a few nuts sprinkled throughout. The bigger the crowds get, the more damaged people can be lost within. It seems harder to be able to tell which ones can hurt you, or just drag you down to their reality. In the end we all succumb to the same gravitational pull. Even if we can lift our head for one glorious night.

(**** out of *****)

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