This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
It’s been 30 years since Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy was released, with its bleak tale of fan obsession, celebrity worship, and rampant self-delusion.
While it does not share the status of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull in the Scorsese/De Niro canon, The King of Comedy has been a cult favorite, gaining in reputation over the years (critics and fans were baffled by it upon its original release). The Tribeca Film Festival, now in its 12th year, has announced that a restored version of King of Comedy will close out the festival. It will screen April 27 at Tribeca BMCC PAC. The restoration, according to festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal, grew out of Scorsese’s idea of featuring restored and rediscovered films at the festival; in this case, it’s one of Scorsese’s own, and was restored by Fox’s Jim Gianopulos and Regency enterprises.
With a brilliant screenplay by Paul D. Zimmerman, King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, the aspiring stand-up comic and dangerously obsessed fan; Sandra Bernhard as Masha, Rupert’s partner in crime; and an incredible Jerry Lewis as “Jerry Langford,” the popular television host and comedian. The film is an eerily prescient examination of the culture of celebrity and the obsession with becoming famous, by whatever means possible.
The King of Comedy was a critical hit more than a commercial one upon its original release, though critics were not unanimous. The late Roger Ebert referred to it, quite accurately, as an “emotional desert.” Scorsese made his name with violent street dramas like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy was an obvious departure. It incorporated surrealist elements — fantasy conversations between Rupert Pupkin and Jerry Langford, where they are apparently best friends (Langford calling Rupert “Rupe,” an affectionate nickname), or Rupert Pupkin standing in an empty dark room staring at a giant black and white photo a laughing audience, the laughter echoing in his ears. In that moment, they could be laughing at him, rather than with him. Does Rupert even care?
Scorsese hasn’t talked as much about Comedy as some of his other films, but he did pay a special homage to it when the restored film was announced. “I’ve always been partial to comedians — the irreverence, the absurdity, the hostility, all the feelings under the surface — and to the old world of late-night variety shows hosted by Steve Allen and Jack Paar and, of course, Johnny Carson, to the familiarity and the camaraderie between the guests,” he said. “You had the feeling that they were there with you, in your living room. Robert De Niro and I were both drawn to Paul Zimmerman’s script for The King of Comedy, which really captured the show business atmosphere and the desperate attachments that some of the people on the other side of the screen could form, the ones that in certain cases turned dangerous.”
There are many memorable scenes, the most famous of course being De Niro in the basement at his mother’s home, whooping it up with cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli and Jerry Lewis, pretending he is a guest on a late-night talk show. His mother screams down the stairs, “What is going on down there, Rupert?” Exasperated, De Niro screams up the stairs, “Ma, I’m BUSY!” and then, without missing a beat, goes right back into the fantasy.
There’s a great scene where Jerry Lewis walks down the crowded Manhattan sidewalk when an elderly woman calls out to him how much she loves his show, and would he say hello to her son, just now on the phone from Florida. Lewis demurs, he’s on his way somewhere, and she turns on him immediately, screaming, “I hope you get CANCER.” It is a brilliant observation of the relationship we have the famous, the expectations we lay on them.
Rupert Pupkin does not “get his,” in the end. We, the audience, are made complicit in a culture which creates Rupert Pupkins by the dozens. We want to see him punished, shown the door. Instead, he is celebrated, he gets what he wants, fame and fortune (like Travis Bickle,hailed as a hero for his vigilantism in Taxi Driver‘s deeply uneasy finale). Pupkin doesn’t “bomb” in his appearance on the Jerry Langford show, guest hosted by the real-life Tony Randall. He gets laughs. Yes, there’s the little matter that he kidnapped Jerry Langford to get there, and now has to do some prison time. But he gets a book deal out of it. There are no repercussions.
Near the end of the film, there are shots of magazine covers, all featuring the smirking self-satisfied face of Rupert Pupkin, and the cover of Newsweek worriedly asks, “Rupert Pupkin: Who is he? What does he want?”
In our current age, in which Real Housewives tip over tables and destroy their own families to get good ratings, in which doing a humiliating reality show is seen as a valid career move for a washed-up star, it’s still a relevant question.
What is it about fame? What do these people want? Rupert Pupkin (or “Pumpkin,” “Pipkin,” or any of the other incorrect names he is called during the course of the film) is alive and well, even more so than he was in 1983. Rupert pointed the way.