Oh – hello there. The following tale of celebrity fetishisation and psychotic delusions is true. And by true, I mean false. Welcome, to The King of Comedy. I’d just like to make this clear: I love this film. And by love, I do not mean hate. In every sense of the world, it’s a love. I can not express how much I think this film is underrated. It’s perfection.
The King of Comedy is based around Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an otherwise unremarkable failure in life. But, in his mother’s basement, he features on imaginary talk shows, and within his sick fantasies, he’s a successful comedian. When he runs into Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a real, big shot comedian, Rupert begins to stalk him, looking for a place on the show. When that doesn’t work, he kidnaps Jerry alongside Marsha (Sandra Bernhard), demanding a monologue as his big break in turn for Jerry’s release.
Reading that you’d probably imagine this as a dark and disturbing flick. You wouldn’t be far wrong, but very cleverly, The King of Comedy hides behind soft pictures and an almost sitcom style of filming. And the same applies for Rupert Pupkin. Most psychos we see on screen are mass murders and violent mad men – Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Anton Chigurh, Travis Bickle – but Rupert doesn’t apply to that criteria. He’s relatively harmless and a little tacky. But beneath the polyester suit and wacky gimmicks, there’s a menacing character. He’s far smarter than we give him credit for. He’s calculated and charismatic. He can do the crime and can take the time. We always think he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, he can’t – it’s Rupert. But deep down, we all know the man’s an evil genius, with the perfect cover. A comedian.
He’s often called the cousin to Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, and you can see the similarities. While Travis strives to purify society and commit acts of suicidal violence, Rupert strives to emulate his celebrity legends and perform comedy acts. They’re two sides to the same coin. One may be viewed as more lighthearted than the other, but Rupert is a very unsettling character. It’s only seen in glimpses – his fixation on bartender Rita (Diahnne Abbott), his repressed rage at Jerry for not giving him what he wants, or when he performs to the raucous wallpaper, full of canned laughter. It’s very effective, and that latter scene always sends a shiver down my spine.
What’s the best part of The King of Comedy? I don’t think there’s much argument for me. Throughout the film, we’ve felt a little sorry for Rupert. He seems like a bit of a lowlife, he’s not well, all he’s trying to do in ply his trade in the game. He refuses to perform to an audience that isn’t watching the Jerry Langford show and his tapes are steadfastly refused. Then suddenly, they’ve reluctantly agreed to let Rupert go on the show. We think he’s going to bomb, right? Wrong. This is the best bit about The King of Comedy:
He’s actually funny. It takes a kidnapping, but when he finally breaks into show business, proving everyone wrong, Rupert achieves his dream, if only for five minutes. The crowd love him. And whatever happens to Rupert, he won’t be forgotten.
But. Yes, there’s a but. It may be one of the funniest scenes, but at the same time, it’s also one of the most tragic. We get to delve deeper into Mr Pupkin’s mind and his childhood. Both his parents were alcoholics, they lived in poverty, he was cruelly bullied at school and a social misfit. It begins to explain his bizarre psyche. We also find out that his mother’s been dead for nine years, even when she’s been calling down to Rupert while he’s in the basement. As I said before, beneath the comedy, this is a tortured and desperate man.
Another of the big shocks from The King of Comedy is how funny De Niro is. I can be quoted as saying, “He’s never been good at comedy, and it’s painful to see he hasn’t realised that yet, especially when that same person is so good at drama.” And you can hold me to that. I’m not going to say De Niro isn’t funny in this film. Of course he is. But in so many other comedies, you feel he’s not playing the character, but trying to do a funny version of himself. And it’s something he’s never mastered – he tries way too hard. In The King of Comedy, it’s not De Niro. He’s fully immersed himself into the character. Rupert Pupkin is funny, so in a way, De Niro isn’t doing any of the comedy at all. He’s playing a character, which I would argue is his best attribute. Pupkin is funny – it’s merely a coincidence that Pupkin and De Niro are the same person.
Of course, the film wasn’t just De Niro (although you would wonder what the film would be like if he didn’t play the lead). The supporting cast is exceptional, especially two people. Sandra Bernhard is one, who deservedly won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress. Bernhard is an interesting one – she had no previous acting experience before, so Scorsese told her to simply improvise all her lines. And it works a charm. I doubt she would even claim she’s the best actor, but she’s definitely – 100% – a comedian. In a way she works perfectly in tandem with De Niro – the man who excels in acting and less in satire, working with the woman who excels in satire and less in acting.
And secondly, none other than mister Jerry Lewis. Unfortunately passing only four years ago, his performance is outstanding. He became famous for his almost Jim Carrey style of comedy and movie misadventures such as The Nutty Professor and The Bellboy, which is probably why Lewis in The King of Comedy is even more staggering than De Niro. His character works in complete contrast to what we had begun to know Lewis as. He captures the arrogance, the strain and complete lack of control of Langford like a dream. I love the flailing of the arms as he runs down the street, or his obsequiousness in Rupert’s fantasies. He is an unsung hero, and deserves far more praise for his performance than he ever got.
I was also surprised about the similarities I found between this film and Fargo. Obviously, they are both humorous black comedies, that are naturally dark and twisted in their themes. But there’s also the overlapping dialogue, so uninteresting and mundane – take the example of Rupert’s date with Rita – that it’s funny. It does feel like we’ve accidentally stumbled into the wrong restaurant, but we’ve decided to stay because of the eccentric conversations. It’s natural. They probably could have cut some of the dialogue down a touch, but I’m glad they didn’t. Ninety-nine minutes of this masterpiece is far too little.
The ending was excellent, as I would expect with any Scorsese film. They’ve managed to capture the celebrity culture throughout, and it feels very poetically satisfying. I despise the whole idea that someone having a child or getting married is front page news. You don’t need to worry about whether or not I’ll be reviewing Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Reality TV doesn’t deserve the term TV next to it, let alone ‘reality‘. What is more concerning is that people like it. And The King of Comedy beautifully humiliates the concept. Maybe it’s one of the reasons the film is up there among my favourites of all time.
Watch this film. That isn’t advice. No – that’s a clear instruction that everyone should fulfil for the sake of humanity. I think it’s one of De Niro’s and Scorsese’s best, and is probably more current to our culture now rather than then, when it bombed. It was so far ahead of its time and a visionary tale that an early 80s audience couldn’t handle it. You heard it here first: The King of Comedy could be ripe for a revamp…
I don’t hand out nines cheaply, but if I’ve ever seen one, it’s The King of Comedy. A deep, dark and simply amazing film, balanced superbly with comedy.
And that’s all we have time for today, unfortunately. Did you like The King of Comedy as much as I do? Is it underrated? Where would you put it on your list of favourite De Niro and Scorsese films? Tell me in the comments below!
The King of Comedy – 9 out of 10