We all want to be famous. Every last one of us, even if we won’t admit it in public. The allure of fame, of having people lean in to hear our every utterance, is intoxicating. Many of us hope to become famous by doing something we’re passionate about, but for an increasingly large number of us, fame is the alpha and the omega. Made in 1982, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy seems more like a prophetic warning than a relic of early ‘80s New York City.
The King of Comedy reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro, this time playing Rupert Pupkin, a celebrity hound and aspiring comedian. Rupert belongs to a mob of autograph seekers, but he’s smart enough to conceal his obsession: when they go into a frenzy over autographs, Rupert says “It’s not my whole life,” over and over again. Except it is his whole life. Rupert has gotten many autographs, but his biggest catch is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a late night talk show host in the mold of Johnny Carson.
After managing to stow away in Langford’s limousine, Rupert convinces himself that his awkward conversation was actually a sign of approval from Jerry. He has a mockup of Jerry’s studio in his apartment with cardboard cutouts of celebrities, but he’s always the guest of honor. Rupert imagines his appearances as fantasy sequences which are interrupted by his mother’s shouts from the other room. Much of Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay relies on cringe humor, but the shouting matches with Rupert’s unseen mother are unabashedly hilarious.
Rupert is genuinely attracted to Jerry Langford’s celebrity, but he also uses his imagined connections to Jerry to impress Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a bartender. Rita’s initial disgust with Rupert suggests that he’s tried to proposition her in the past, but she proves to be nearly as susceptible to the allure of fame when she sees how many celebrity autographs Rupert has gotten.
Rupert’s obsession with Jerry Langford is exceeded by Masha (Sandra Bernhard). Her obsession is distinctly sexual. She doesn’t want to use Jerry as a stepping stone to bigger ambitions — she just wants Jerry.
Scorsese doesn’t use the virtuosic camera moves in The King of Comedy that he’s most famous for, instead favoring a still camera, which is well-matched to Rupert and his humiliations. The camera lingers on his face as he delivers terrible jokes and forces the viewer to squirm at his lack of self-awareness. It also matches the kind of cameras used on late night shows, which are used in more static ways than film cameras.
While watching The King of Comedy, it’s hard not to think of Scorsese’s earlier film, Taxi Driver. De Niro plays Travis Bickle in that film, a psychotic individual driven to violence by paranoia and delusions of grandeur. Rupert Pupkin often seems like a less dangerous and more foolish version of Bickle — a schmuck rather than a murderer. Like Bickle, Rupert’s extreme actions are partially fueled by the desire to impress a woman. However, Bickle also imagines himself as a savior to that woman, whereas Rupert just wants to be famous enough for Rita to like him. Bickle resorts to extreme violence to achieve his goals, whereas Rupert can only make half-hearted threats. Bickle at least succeeds at the terrible things he sets his mind to — Rupert is a perpetual failure. The film was also released in the wake of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and it’s hard to separate those events from the two films. Hinckley was partly influenced by Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy is much more aware of the influence fame has on individuals with unbalanced minds. The film isn’t just an update on Scorsese’s earlier work, but also on the earlier film’s legacy.
As he did in Taxi Driver, De Niro seems to fully inhabit the character of Rupert Pupkin. Where Travis Bickle was filled with rage that boiled over, Rupert is mostly a blank. His celebrity obsessions are made clear, but his history and how he became that way is a mystery. That might be a weakness in another film, but here it makes Pupkin almost terrifying, a psychopath masquerading as a comedian. If Rupert wasn’t obsessed with a comedian the film would have become a horror movie.
Jerry Lewis is also a perfect choice for the object of Rupert’s obsession. It’s quite popular for actors to play dirt bag versions of themselves now, but Lewis’s role is a more successful precedent.
Scorsese rarely favors comedy (although when he does, he can produce fantastic films like After Hours), but The King of Comedy ranks with his greatest dramatic works. Equally hilarious and chilling, it’s one of Scorsese’s most disturbing and compelling films.