„The King of Comedy” by Martin Scorsese

You laughin’ at me?

The King of Comedy (1983) is among the least popular Martin Scorsese pictures.

And, truth to tell, there are good reasons for that. It’s not as spectacular as Mean Streets. Not as poignant as Raging Bull. Not as shocking as Taxi Driver. And nowhere near as violent as Goodfellas.

Besides, its plot is banal and frankly ludicrous. 

A delusional wannabe comedian, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), is obsessed with Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), host of a late-night show. One day, Pupkin buttonholes Langford and begs him for an appearance on his show. In order to get Pupkin off his back, Langford gives him his secretary’s phone number. After numerous rejections from Langford’s staff, the humiliated Pupkin, assisted by his batty sidekick Masha (Sandra Bernhard), kidnaps Langford and holds him hostage in exchange for a spot on his show. Finally, Pupkin does a standup act on TV, becomes an overnight sensation and lands a book deal, although this happy ending may very well be a figment of his twisted imagination.

To be honest, there is nothing extraordinary about the film’s simple structure, familiar (if not overfamiliar) themes – the American Dream, the obsession with the rich and famous, the pursuit of success at all cost, etc. – or its “minimalist” style, which might come as a surprise to viewers accustomed to the visual richness of Scorsese’s movies. And yet, few films I’ve seen are as evocative or thought-provoking.

Witness the opening credits scene with the freeze-frame of a star-struck groupie (Masha) frantically banging on the window inside Langford’s limo. Add to that Ray Charles’ glorious performance of Come Rain Or Come Shine, and you feel, about five minutes into the movie, that you’re watching a masterwork. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeNXT8QA_EM Or try the rehearsal of Pupkin’s standup routine with cardboard cut-outs on a set built in a basement. In the end, the camera tracks away, and Pupkin is reduced to a small, pathetic figure trapped in a claustrophobic space (or is it his sick mind?). And that canned laughter, increasingly loud and diabolical…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3THyEP4c1E. You can’t miss the scene where Pupkin fantasizes about talking to Langford at a restaurant, giving an autograph to a fan and refusing to take over the Jerry Langford Show for a while (It’s impossible! It’s impossible!). Note the smooth transition to cloud-cuckoo-land and the sudden return to the here and now – a neat trick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgCKeWAXlgs. Or take the hilarious scene where Masha, after helping Pupkin carry out the kidnapping, entertains the duct-taped Langford in a room full of burning candles. Interestingly, Masha sings You’re gonna love me, etc. instead of I’m gonna love you. (Just a little detail, but still.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoROpw22DL8. Finally, the closing scene where Pupkin does his crude shtick on the Jerry Langford Show, cracks up the audience and becomes a household name. Of course, it’s always funny to see a talentless hack win popular acclaim. But the funniest thing is, when Pupkin confesses that he hijacked Langford only to break into show business (because it’s better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime), the studio audience is in stitches, thinking that his confession is just part of the act! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajb8wd7jDFU Similarly, when Langford calls his associates for help, they don’t take him seriously at all – they assume his phone call is just a gag. One of the execs even asks him specific questions (What do we call our second cameraman? What’s his favorite color?) to make sure he’s speaking to the right person. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqew6ulya_g

At bottom, The King of Comedy is all about (self-) deception. Look closely and you will see that everybody in the film deceives, or is deceived by, everybody else (think Rita, or Langford’s, and later Pupkin’s, fans). And there is no doubt that everybody, except maybe for Rita, is quite happy to deceive and to be deceived. Or maybe we should replace “they” with “we”? Now, let’s be frank – would you swear, hand on heart, that you’ve never… ever… like Pupkin… that geek… that loser… or like Masha… that…urgh… nah…. no way… never!

The King of Comedy cuts uncomfortably close to the bone and makes us think – or, rather, suppress – deeply buried, self-censored, virtually unthinkable, thoughts.

Viewer discretion is therefore strongly advised.

 

© by Krzysztof Mąkosa

 

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard

Supporting actors:  Diahnne Abbott (De Niro’s wife at the time the film was made, as Rita), Shelley Hack (as Cathy Long, Langford’s assistant), Margo Winkler (as Receptionist), Catherine Scorsese (director’s mother, as Pupkin’s Mother, heard only as an off-screen voice), Charles Scorsese (director’s father, as First Man at Bar), Cathy Scorsese (director’s daughter, as Dolores), Martin Scorsese (as TV Director), et al.

 

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