Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is a film out of time. This is not an indication that there’s so much story here that the 99 minutes from start to finish simply isn’t enough. The idea that it’s out of time refers to the fact that it didn’t belong in 1982, the year of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Gandhi and Poltergeist. This dark, menacing film was troubling in 1982 because of the soft, sitcom-style color photography, the calculated menace, and the fear that at any point leading man Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) may just explode at his target, late night TV talk show legend Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis.)
Perhaps it was also Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Rupert’s co-conspirator, a fellow Jerry Langford groupie who thinks nothing of kidnapping her hero, duct-taping him to a chair, stripping to her underwear and crooning “Come Rain or Come Shine” as he glares across the table at her. The flames from the candlelit dinner aren’t the only fires that are at risk of getting out of control in that scene.
The public simply was not ready for this story in 1982, and it remains difficult to absorb, even when the leader of the free world is now a craven, desperately needy Rupert Pupkin type. Glancing at the IMDB page for The King of Comedy indicates that its first release was in Iceland in December 1982. Was that some type of devious marketing plan, or did the producers have an ingenious marketing plan in mind? Regardless, it was an enormous box-office failure that slipped away shortly after release.
Scorsese’s biggest hit wouldn’t come until 1986’s Color of Money, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Paul Newman reprising his role as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool shark, welcoming in tough guy Vincent (Tom Cruise). Waves of commercial success and critical raves would follow with gangster epics Goodfellas (1993) and Casino (1995) and a token long-overdue Best Director Oscar for The Departed (2006.)
Indeed, in the 35 years since the release of The King of Comedy, Scorsese has been at the helm of scores of feature films, documentaries, short subjects, TV commercials, and music videos. These other projects, more than King of Comedy, arguably helped create his mythology. They’re big, brash, with jump cuts and stylized violence, pent-up rage exploding in torrents of gunfire and verbal/emotional abuse of men against women and men against themselves. What was it about The King of Comedy that made its menace more deadly than any of these gangster dramas?
Rupert Pupkin is the polyester-suited cinematic cousin of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, the 1976 release from Scorsese and DeNiro that set the two on the road toward fame. Travis wanted to kill a Presidential candidate in order to impress and rescue Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her life in Hell. Rupert, a failed stand-up comic living in his mother’s basement, wanted to kidnap late night TV talk show host Jerry Langford so that he could impress his old high school girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) and just get that single five-minute stand-up shot that would make his career. Recalling this scene at a 30th anniversary retrospective for the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, Scorsese noted:
“…I decided not to do any camera movement but to create this hermetically-sealed frame, like the kind of television world everyone was watching at the time…in wide shots, the comedy looked better…These days, the cuts are so fast.”
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While the filmmaking style is the opposite here from that of Taxi Driver as Scorsese went on to note, the characters and the tone are the same. The King of Comedy might have been mistakenly understood as comedic by the mainstream audience, but this is an ugly type of comedy. Rupert pre-dated the stand-up comedy boom of the late ’80s early ’90s, when anybody with a good ten minutes could sell their character, their very essence, as a lead in a sitcom. For Seinfeld and Roseanne for example (probably the two greatest examples of a sitcom premise matching their star), the narrative both comics brought to the stage is fleshed out to suit a conventional sensibility.
Rupert did have his time on the stage that night. Jerry is in Masha’s custody, released only on the condition that Rupert get on the show. There’s no blood, no heroic shoot-out. Jerry doesn’t run to the studio and tackle Rupert to the floor. He sees Rupert’s act displayed on a bank of TVs, and there’s only disgust on Jerry’s face, not rage. In the end, it’s just a pitiful stand-up act from Rupert that might have worked well during the overdose of late night shows dedicated purely to filmed stand-up comic monologues:
By 1982, DeNiro had earned a Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II (1974) and Best Actor for Raging Bull (1980). His turn as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver remains difficult to watch if only because he makes the viewer waver between empathy and repulsion. DeNiro and Scorsese had worked together four times before The King of Comedy, and in the 35 years since they would collaborate three more times on the gangster classics Goodfellas (1990), the Grand Guignol horror of Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995). What makes Rupert so dangerous and different from all those other lethal characters is that DeNiro knows how to normalize his character’s sociopathic behavior.
In a brilliant nod to their audience, DeNiro and Scorsese include this scene in a restaurant, where Rupert is trying to sell Rita on this plan to kidnap Jerry. Notice the patron alone at a table in the background, mimicking Rupert’s gestures. He thinks Rupert’s grand schemes are empty, but he (and none of us at that point) realize the mission will be completed:
The essence of Jerry Lewis is too much to be contained in any retrospective of The King of Comedy. As Jerry Langford, Lewis is a stiff, repressed character whose arrogance seemed contained in the very way he carried himself. Like the late Johnny Carson, who was among the several first offered the role, Lewis understood that physicality was not limited to uncontrollable flailing of the limbs. One of the more memorable scenes featured Jerry walking down the street, acknowledging cries of his name from the crowd. Jerry passes a woman on a payphone. She sees Jerry and asks him to speak with her cousin, who she notes to Jerry is in the hospital. Jerry declines, and the woman rages in return, wishing cancer on him. Scorsese noted, during the 30th anniversary screening, that he let Lewis direct this scene:
“I watched how he worked with the actor, the timing. He’d go, ‘One, two, three, turn, line, laugh!’ It isn’t necessarily funny, but it is the essence of the movie.”
In 1982, the talk show landscape was still very white, with David Letterman still at the infancy of his hosting career, basically an outsider, and the world otherwise still populated by old-school, hokey, Vegas-style entertainers. Rupert Pupkin succeeded because there was a crack in the armor, a narrow entrance through which he could slip in and cause damage. Other than that moment, the TV entertainment world of 1982 was built as a well-oiled machine, where every comic beat was choreographed and nothing was allowed to happen by chance. Today, we watch our TV shows in small doses the next morning on streaming services of our choice. We’ve long been liberated from the constraints of network scheduling. As for the outcome of Rupert Pupkin, it’s clear he’s succeeded at getting a shot on TV. Scorsese’s verdict on Rupert Pupkin is as clear a commentary on today’s US political leaders as anything else:
“…he becomes successful without being good. He’s good enough. That’s the most unsettling part, that he’s good enough… There are so many Rupert’s around us. There’s so much dilution, and democratizing of what quality is, for better or for worse.”
The King of Comedy will continue to draw in an audience. From the brilliant, brash, audacious debut of Sandra Bernhard, the smooth music curating from Robbie Robertson, and a cold, calculated script from writer Paul Zimmerman (who would be dead 11 years later at the age of 54), nothing is dated. In an era when the only thing needed to garner attention is an ability to appeal to base cruelty and stupidity on social media, it’s clear that Rupert Pupkin’s success will be repeated over and over again in modern society.
Martin Scorsese on The King of Comedy’s Modern Relevance: “There Are So Many Ruperts Around Us”, Abrams, Simon, Vanity Fair, 27 June 2016
“Scorsese, De Niro, Lewis and Bernhard Recall The King of Comedy”, Macaulay, Scott, Filmmaker Magazine, 1 May 2013