Notable Festivals: Cannes
There’s something about show business that attracts the most delusional, self-absorbed and borderline-psychotic of people. We’ve all seen the lurid tabloid headlines about the bizarre behavior exhibited by celebrities, as if being rich and famous were a license to flagrantly disregard any semblance of normal social standards and decency. Perhaps even more interesting is the behavior exhibited by those who aspire to fame but for whom success has been elusive. One of my best friends has an acquaintance from film school that completely embodies this particularly noxious brand of ego and desperation. His social media posts are single-mindedly about his meetings with studio heads to direct the next installment of a major franchise, or his interactions with A-list celebrities that consist of nothing but said celebrity’s effusive praise for his genius and unparalleled talent. That’s a pretty remarkable career for a guy without even an IMDB page to his name, let alone a single film. His boasts are almost reckless in their falseness, yet he broadcasts them widely to his social media audience as if it were truth. Nothing can ever truly prepare someone for encountering that kind of wanton delusion in the real world. Judging by the reception of THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)– director Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his career comeback RAGING BULL (1980)—we apparently don’t even know how to deal with that delusion in a fictional world.
After the success of 1980’s RAGING BULL, Scorsese wanted to focus on a passion project he had developed for quite some time—a radical take on Jesus Christ and his crucifixion called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, starring Robert De Niro as the titular Son Of God. De Niro didn’t greet the touchy subject matter as enthusiastically as Scorsese, and instead suggested the idea of doing a comedy together. He reminded Scorsese of a script he had brought to the director’s attention way back in 1974—a script by film critic Paul D. Zimmerman titled THE KING OF COMEDY. Back then, Scorsese found that he couldn’t really connect with the material, but in the tumultuous years that followed—years that would see him skyrocket to fame with 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, then nearly lose everything from overindulging in eccentric projects and substance abuse, only to then reinstall himself at the top of the art form with RAGING BULL—Scorsese had gained a lifetime’s worth of experience in the trappings of fame, suddenly finding the content of THE KING OF COMEDY much more relatable. Scorsese and De Niro’s explosive collaborative chemistry had fueled each other’s careers to ever-loftier heights, but 1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY would slow their ascent to an abrupt halt with its disappointing reception. It would be their last collaboration for seven years. Despite the film’s perceived failure, the quality of Scorsese and De Niro’s work has endured, and THE KING OF COMEDY is now regarded as something of a minor masterpiece in the director’s filmography—a grand satire of fame, ambition, and the ravenous appetite of the media.
As Scorsese’s first outright comedy, THE KING OF COMEDY doesn’t try so much for hearty belly laughs as it does for the nervous laughter elicited in awkward situations we’d rather escape. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is an aspiring comedian—emphasis on “aspiring”. He’s currently living in his mother’s basement in an outer borough of New York City, and completely preoccupied with meeting his idol, a Johnny Carson-type late night show host named Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). One night, he finally succeeds by saving Jerry from the other rabid fans outside the stage door, throwing himself into the getaway limousine as it speeds away. Finally face to face with his idol, he does what most desperate wannabe’s do—immediately pitch his act. Jerry brushes Rupert off in the worst way possible; he tells him to call his assistant to set up an appointment to listen to his act, assuming that Rupert will never actually follow up. Much to the chagrin of Jerry and his employees, Rupert dutifully (and repeatedly) shows up to the show’s offices until he has to be thrown out of the building by security. Undeterred by this minor “mishap”, Rupert continues his bid for Jerry’s attention, indulging in fantasies wherein he and Jerry are best friends. His daydreams grow increasingly more delusional, with Jerry praising Rupert’s act as nothing short of revolutionary and inviting him out to his house in the Hamptons for the weekend. The extent of Rupert’s disconnect from reality becomes painfully apparent to everyone around him when he actually shows up at Jerry’s Hamptons house unannounced. Feeling that his “friendship” with Jerry is slipping away, and by extension his chance for his big debut on Jerry’s show, Rupert concocts a last-ditch scheme to launch his career by kidnapping Jerry and leveraging his hostage for a spot delivering the opening monologue on the show.
In his old age, De Niro has tried to soften his tough guy image by appearing in comedies like MEET THE PARENTS (2000), so one could look at THE KING OF COMEDY as the beginning of De Niro’s desire to try his hand at comedic roles. As the wannabe fanatic Rupert Pupkin, De Niro excels at projecting a disturbingly needy and desperate vibe—the complete opposite of the aloof tough guys he played in previous collaborations with Scorsese. This complete lack of machismo and posturing on De Niro’s part results in an unforgettable performance that Scorsese reportedly considers the actor’s best within their own work together. THE KING OF COMEDY would serve as De Niro’s last appearance in a Scorsese film until 1990’s GOODFELLAS, a development that the director attributes to the uncomfortable nature of the story and the subsequent difficulty in shooting said uncomfortable moments. Real-life comedian Jerry Lewis plays the object of Pupkin’s idolatry- the conceited and egotistical Jerry Langford. Lewis has a reputation for being somewhat of a dick, so naturally he excels at capturing the authenticity of an impatient, rich asshole here.
De Niro’s then-wife, Diahnne Abbot, plays Rita—a bartender and a romantic interest for Rupert. Abbot is for all intents and purposes the straight character, giving a grounded performance that establishes perspective for the delusionary characters that populate the film. While she had cameos in a couple of Scorsese’s films previously (most notably as a lounge singer in 1977’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK), her performance in THE KING OF COMEDY is the first real instance of substantial screen time in a Scorsese film. Sandra Bernhard plays Masha, a contentious friend of Rupert’s and a fellow nutbag with a dangerous, unpredictable edge. Additionally, THE KING OF COMEDY features brief appearances by Scorsese’s friends and family—both of his parents make respective cameos, with mother Catherine as Rupert’s heard-but-not-seen mother and father Charles as a patron at the bar. Scorsese’ longtime writing partner Mardik Martin also makes an appearance at the same bar, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s Liza Minnelli appears in cardboard cutout form in Rupert’s basement apartment. Finally, Scorsese himself appears briefly as a television director for Jerry’s show.
THE KING OF COMEDY greatly deviates from the established Scorsese “look”– that signature blend of grit, immediacy, and lurid color– opting instead for a straightforward, unadorned look. For whatever reason, Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Michael Chapman is absent from the proceedings, replaced by director of photography Fred Schuler. Like most comedies, Scorsese emphasizes broad, even lighting and wide compositions to better capture the physical comedy on display. THE KING OF COMEDY makes no distinction between Pupkin’s humdrum, everyday existence and the ego-stroking daydreams he indulges in; indeed, the fantasy sequences are presented so mundanely they often feel more realistic than the grounded sequences. Whereas works like 1973’s MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL spliced 8mm color home movie footage into the 35mm presentation, THE KING OF COMEDY marks an early acknowledgement of the aesthetic of television video. For the opening of the film as well as Rupert Pupkin’s big monologue delivery, Scorsese shot these sequences on broadcast video, the medium’s scratchy fuzziness standing in stark contrast to the crisp film visuals. The rise of Steadicam in the early 80’s also allows Scorsese to experiment with long takes and sustained camera movement, often walking with characters for extended charges down the long Manhattan boulevards. The absurdity of the film’s humor is balanced with a straightforward, non-flashy edit by Thelma Schoonmaker, a key creative partner of Scorsese’s.
At first glance, THE KING OF COMEDY seeks like an odd choice of project for Scorsese to take on. There’s no swaggering masculinity, no Catholic imagery, no room for popular rock songs, or insights into the Italian American experience. On a surface level, the film’s setting of New York City and the participation of De Niro are the only markers of Scorsese’s participation. However, closer inspection reveals the presence of a few more directorial trademarks, like the depiction of chaotic street life in the form of rabid, screaming fans and autograph hounds lurking outside the backstage door of Jerry’s show. Scorsese’s filmography is also characterized by protagonists who are thugs, miscreants and lowlifes—Pupkin may not be a thug per se, but he’s most certainly a lowlife, dwelling haplessly at the bottom of the New York food chain, and he’ll have to resort to illegal means if he’s going to stand a shot at achieving his own version of the American Dream.
THE KING OF COMEDY proved something of yet another career setback for Scorsese, who had previously been riding high on the success of RAGING BULL. The film was a flop at the box office, with many people turned off by the awkward, uncomfortable nature of the comedy. They might not have understood how a film this “unpleasant” would be nominated for the prestigious Palm d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but as the years have passed, the Cannes jury’s judgment would prove itself as remarkably ahead of its time. THE KING OF COMEDY has aged surprisingly well, growing in appreciation and critical regard over the years as an underrated gem within Scorsese’s filmography. Scorsese’s “uncomfortable” satire has proved eerily prescient, predicting our media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed age, where anyone can become famous despite a total lack of talent or conviction. As long as there’s a little a little Rupert Pupkin inside all of us, THE KING OF COMEDY will endure as one of Scorsese’s most relevant achievements.
THE KING OF COMEDY is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Produced by: Arnon Milchan
Written by: Paul D. Zimmerman
Director of Photography: Fred Schuler
Production Designer: Boris Leven
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker