"You know what? Don't tell anyone yet, but you're looking at the new king of comedy. Why not me? Why not? A guy can get anything he wants as long as he's willing to pay the price." -Rupert Pupkin.
A lesser-known and vastly underrated work by one of America's finest filmmakers.
Facts of the Case
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a thirtysomething loser who lives with his mother and dreams of being a famous standup comedian. More specifically, he constructs elaborate fantasies of an appearance on The Jerry Langford Show, a late night gab-fest, that makes him famous and beloved across America.
After a series of attempts to land a spot on the show fail because Pupkin has absolutely no qualifications to appear on the country's most watched talk show, he and his equally Langford-obsessed cohort, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), kidnap Langford (Jerry Lewis). Communicating with the show's producers via ransom note and telephone, Rupert and Masha make their demand: Rupert gets to perform his standup act before all of America, or Langford gets it.
Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy is simultaneously the younger, gentler, but equally psychotic brother of Taxi Driver and the older, more cynical, and dangerous brother of television's The Larry Sanders Show. Had The King of Comedy been made in 1993 instead of 1983, it would have fared much better at the box office and would be ranked more highly in Scorsese's canon. It was simply way ahead of its time. Since its release we've seen all manner of films that twist fantasy and reality into postmodern pretzels: Robert Altman's The Player, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, even television shows like Seinfeld and the aforementioned The Larry Sanders Show. When Scorsese was making The King of Comedy, though, this sort of self-referential approach was still the road less traveled. Mainstream audiences in the early 1980s had very little in the way of precedents to help them understand how the film was best digested. That its maker was Martin Scorsese, known for making gritty and unflinchingly realistic portraits of desperate characters, made it even more difficult for them to see the film for what it is: a comedy; a very dark comedy, to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless.
The King of Comedy is in some ways a comic retelling of Scorsese's earlier work, Taxi Driver (1976). Both films examine loneliness and isolation. Rupert Pupkin is a funnier, more affable, but equally disconnected from reality and, in some ways, equally scary version of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. That both Pupkin and Bickle are played by Robert De Niro only strengthens the parallel. In each film, the lead character's alienation from the culture around him moves him to take extreme measures in order to force the world to recognize and acknowledge his own humanity. The films' endings are parallel in that both Pupkin and Bickle gain notoriety and, oddly enough, respect, building for themselves a happy ending despite their darker instincts. Bickle's road to that happy ending is bloodier, more violent, only because the film in which he resides is a drama. Pupkin, whose world is comic, never has to pull the trigger the way Bickle does, but one gets the sense that, given the right set of circumstances, he would—he's as psychologically and existentially committed as his darker brother. This is a large part of what left audiences in the early '80s scratching their heads. Is Rupert Pupkin funny? Yes. Is he also scary? Absolutely.
Here's what's brilliant about The King Comedy: Scorsese delivered a comedy that has something serious to say, yet it never feels like two movies, unbalanced, competing with itself. Its humor is smart and twisted so that every scene works on multiple levels. Consider a scene in which Rupert, in his mother's basement, attempts to record a cassette tape of his comedy routine for submission to The Jerry Langford Show's talent screener, only to be repeatedly interrupted by mother, yelling down at him. It reveals him as a man in his thirties who is still somehow a child, playing in his imagination, but having to answer to his mother. His violent reactions to her interruptions are funny, while also revealing the character's frighteningly explosive temper. Finally, for us, the movie audience, there is the irony that Rupert's exchanges with his mother are far funnier than his written routine; if he'd leave the recorder on as they yell at one another, he'd have a much more hilarious final product. The film is full of similarly dense and carefully observed moments. While all sorts of silliness ensues, nothing is ever purely silly; everything serves the work's larger themes. The result is a lean but dense movie that is simultaneously absurd and starkly realistic.
Like later postmodern films (Altman's The Player comes to mind), The King of Comedy makes brilliant use of cameos to heighten this sense of absurdity in reality and reality in the absurd. Perennial talk show guests such as Dr. Joyce Brothers, Liza Minnelli, Victor Borge, and Tony Randall appear as themselves in the film; the late Ed Herlihy, sidekick on The Tonight Show when Jack Paar was at its helm, plays himself as Jerry Langford's sidekick; and the late Fred De Cordova, producer of The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson's long reign, plays Bert Thomas, the producer of The Jerry Langford Show. In what can perhaps be read as a blatant nod to Taxi Driver, Mick Jones and the recently departed Joe Strummer from The Clash are among a group of extras credited only as "Street Scum" (remember Travis Bickle's obsession with washing the scum—prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers—off the streets of New York?). All of these appearances, and the texture they add to the film, make detailed viewing and reviewing a whole lot of fun.
The film's lead actors are outstanding. If you've been living under the misconception that Analyze This' Paul Vitti was Robert De Niro's first comedic role, you need to check out The King of Comedy. While the comedy is dark, De Niro's timing is dead-on; he's hilarious. The role of Rupert Pupkin is incredibly demanding, requiring the actor to inspire laughs, fear, and pity from his audience, and he makes it look far too easy. When the film was originally released, though, it was Jerry Lewis who received the warmest notices, and deservedly so. Jerry Langford is the Johnny Carson of this alternate universe, and Lewis brings to the role a confidence and comfort inside his own skin befitting a late night talk show powerhouse of Carson's magnitude. There's none of the hilarious neurosis and self-doubt with which Garry Shandling played Larry Sanders on his great television series; it's clear from the get-go that Langford, like Carson, is the undisputed king of late night entertainment. Only Lewis could've played the role with the requisite old-school comedic wit and style, that kind of Catskills smarminess mixed with hard-core professionalism—Langford is the kind of guy who's been in the business forever (and refers to it, of course, as "the business"), and knows its ins and outs like a neurosurgeon knows the medulla oblongata. And Sandra Bernhard…she's perfect in this universe. Allowed space to improvise much of her dialogue, she spews cultural references and poetically detailed observations so naturally, she leaves us no doubt that Masha must be completely out of her mind. Her sibling-like clashes with De Niro are some of the funniest moments in the film.
Happily, The King of Comedy is presented on DVD in an anamorphic transfer at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It looks very good, the best I've ever seen it considering my first encounter with the film was on its initial release on VHS. The image is strong with good color saturation and deep blacks. The picture's even got a decent three-dimensional quality. There's some prevalent grain in darker shots, and very minor and isolated flaws from the source. Considering the fact this isn't one of Scorsese's most beloved films, and this release isn't exactly a special edition, I was worried Fox would give the transfer minimum attention. Their efforts exceeded my expectations.
Audio is offered in Dolby Digital stereo and 2.0 mono. Both tracks have a very narrow dynamic range as well as isolated instances of distortion that are probably from the source. Still, dialogue is clear and the tracks probably accurately reproduce the way the film sounded in theaters. While this disc isn't going to wow you, it won't annoy either.
The prime extra on the disc is an 18-minute making-of featurette called "A Shot at the Top." It's a surprisingly substantive retrospective piece that includes interviews with Scorsese and Bernhard, both of whom recall their experiences making the film while also speaking intelligently about the work's themes, cultural relevance, and how well it holds up twenty years after its initial release.
There are two deleted scenes, both featuring Jerry Lewis. The first is 37 seconds long and is a very funny moment with Langford interacting with some fans on the street. The second, clocking in at almost six minutes, is Langford's complete show-opening monologue, parts of which were used in the film. The monologue's far from side-splitting, but Lewis' natural delivery and spontaneous interaction with the crowd of extras reinforce how right he is for the role.
A still gallery with 34 production photos, the film's theatrical trailer, and a TV spot round out the extras. It's not the most deluxe set of extras I've ever seen, but the fact that this film received anything but a bare bones treatment pleases me to no end.
If you saw The King of Comedy back in the '80s and didn't laugh, give it a second chance on DVD. A lot of pop cultural water has gone under the bridge in the past twenty years. You may find the film's humor strangely obvious today considering how obscure it was back then.
If you've never bothered seeing The King of Comedy because it has the air of a bad cul de sac in the career of a mostly-brilliant filmmaker, I urge you to give it a shot. There's no doubt that the film is dark, but it's also keenly observed and very, very funny in its own weird way.
How can I find Rupert Pupkin guilty? You know who he is, don't you? He's that guy from The Jerry Langford Show. He's the new king of comedy.
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• A Shot At The Top Making-Of Featurette
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