By Christian DiMartino
To be Martin Scorsese must be a little frustrating. Here is a guy who has made all of these excellent films, and has received multiple Oscar nominations… and yet he only has one Oscar to his name. To further that, while most of Scorsese’s films become instant classics and are completely cherished, others don’t quite get their due. For every Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, there’s After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Shutter Island.
The King of Comedy, for understandable reasons, falls into the latter category.
Here is a really good movie that people don’t often speak of. Or, at least, in terms of his films, or even his collaborations with Robert De Niro. It’s not quite one of his best, but it’s also a worthy addition to his legacy for a number of reasons. (SIDENOTE: This film, in a number of ways, serves as the inspiration for the recent Oscar winner Joker).
De Niro and Scorsese were a terrific duo, and The King of Comedy boasts one of De Niro’s best performances, but again, one that people don’t often talk about. Here he plays Rupert Pupkin, an awkward but seemingly confident fella who has huge dreams of being a successful comedian. We know nothing about his routine, just a few little jokes, but Rupert believes he should be a star. Pupkin often has fantasies about his future, and things going his way.
Many of those fantasies involve a late-night talk show host named Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, playing it perfectly straight), who Pupkin sees as his ticket into the business. In the world of this film, Langford is seen as something of a god. As the film opens, a crazed fan named Masha (Sandra Bernhard) gets into Langford’s limo. By means of “rescuing” Langford, so does Pupkin. Pupkin and Masha are both interested in getting close to Langford, and are even well acquainted, but Pupkin carries himself a little better.
Langford and Pupkin ride to Langford’s apartment building, and Pupkin tells him of his dreams and his goals. Their exchange ends with a glimmer of hope: Langford tells him they’ll be in touch. Though anyone who can pick up on social cues knows that this conversation has a completely different meaning to Pupkin than it does to Langford. Pupkin, hanging onto this glimmer of hope, repeatedly returns back to Langford’s office, while also boasting about how him and Langford are good friends. Once reality sets in though, Pupkin and Masha join forces to get what they want from Langford, of course taking it to even more extreme measures.
The King of Comedy is richly entertaining and is funny in interesting ways. Lewis gets big laughs here, in subtle ways, in the final act. Bernhard’s Masha is also quite the character- some of her line delivery feels odd, but also, this character is a total nutbag, so maybe it fits. De Niro’s performance here is brilliant though. Here is a guy who we root for, while we cringe for. We root for him because he does have a strange, confident charm about him, but also, we know that he is a bit on the delusional side. He’s not mentally ill, necessarily, but sometimes his fantasies get the better of him. Even so though, the people around him do not help.
The King of Comedy is funny, but also, some of its laughs are drawn out of discomfort. This is a film that thrives off of making its audience squirm. Some films accidentally cause discomfort; this one lives for it. In many of Pupkin’s antics and scenarios, we get the sense that this guy is taking it too far, and that he isn’t taking the hint. Watching it again, it’s hard to wonder what led De Niro and Scorsese to make it, considering it was a pretty large departure from their previous collaboration, Raging Bull, and their others.
This isn’t quite a great film, yet it’s for reasons that remain a mystery. Because there is something very enjoyable about it… but that leads to another mystery: where does the enjoyment comes from? It’s a bizarre, uncomfortable, nutty little number… but it’s very well aware of that, and never pretends to be anything it isn’t. Kind of like Rupert Pupkin.