- Movie Rating -

The King of Comedy (1983)

| February 18, 1983

I really don’t know how to feel about The King of Comedy.  That’s odd because I’ve never had that experience with a film by Martin Scorsese.  His films are so dense, so packed, so ready to be broken down and interpreted on a personal level that when you arrive at a movie like this, it’s quite a shock.

I’m not certain what kind of movie we have here.  By its tone, it appears to be a comedy.  By its unsettling nature, it appears to be a thriller.  By its lack of high points, it appears to be neither of these things.  I’m not laughing and I’m not thrilled, yet I’m intrigued.  He seems to have created the portrait of a man who believes that success and celebrity are his for the taking.  The fact that he doesn’t get it when he asks for it only frustrates his self-implied rise to the top.

The movie stars Robert de Niro in a wholly different performance from that of Mean Streets or Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter or The Godfather Part II.  He is Rupert Pupkin, a pathetic man whose singular trajectory is to be a talk show host.  In particular, he worships the work of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) the partially talented host of The Jerry Langford Show, a late-night staple that is not a million miles removed from The Tonight Show. 

Rupert’s world is rather odd.  He lives in his mother’s basement which is set up like a talk show set with dozens of lifesized celebrity cutouts.  At one point, he actually practices an interview with Jerry and Liza Minnelli while their cut-outs, of course sit in stone silence.  It is almost as if Rupert believes that instant fame will come blowing in through the door.  It’s only a matter of time, and he’d better keep the chops up.  He can’t wait, and he even has fantasies of Langford’s jealousy as the comedian praises his genius.

His attempts to get onto Langford’s show are equally pathetic.  He records his own intro into a tape recorder with band music and audience laughter so that Jerry’s handlers (he thinks) can get the full spectrum of the comic majesty that the audience is in for.  The problem is that his act is mainlined at about a C+.  It needs work, but when he is told this by Langford’s secretary (Shelley Hack) he doesn’t take it as good advice.  She advises him to start at the bottom and work his way up, but he doesn’t see it that way and their meeting becomes more and more uncomfortable as he crosses the usual lines and becomes a great big pest. 

Scorsese allows this scene to continue as Hack becomes frustrated and Rupert becomes more and more persistent.  Even more unsettling is a scene in which Rupert arrives at Jerry’s front door unwanted and unannounced.  Jerry is furious, but Rupert behaves as if they are old friends

Up to this point, I was onboard.  I found it a unique portrait of a man who is not playing in reality but in a fantasy land in which he is regarded as a comedy genius and everyone greets him with love and kisses.  He lives inside of the legend that he regards for himself without seeming to regard people, limits, etiquette or closed doors.

The problem is the second half of the movie, which seemed to take a weird turn as Rupert and a colleague (Sandra Bernhardt) put together a flimsy plan to kidnap Jerry with the ransom being a guest shot on Jerry’s show.  The last few scenes of the movie are somewhat confusing.  I never could figure out exactly what was going on.  Is the ending a dream?  Another fantasy?  The full reality.  I’m not sure.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1982) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy