The King of Comedy (1983) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for language, mild violence, and some sensuality
Running Time: 109 min.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott, Shelley Hack, Ed Herlihy, Tony Randall, Kim Chan, Fred De Cordova, Victor Borge, Martin Scorsese, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Liza Minnelli
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Zimmerman
Review published February 19, 2005

The King of Comedy isn't so much a comedy in the traditional sense, although it might be classified as a twisted, and quite tragic, comedy of errors.  It is also scathing satire on the rising popularity of people who will do anything to get a piece of their own fame or fortune, completely for self-serving interests, compelled by an overriding need to show the world they are somebody.  Sometimes these feelings are piggybacked on the fame of others who have made it, resulting in fixations, obsessions, and a love/hate relationship that admires the celebrity for representing the pinnacle of fame that they desire, while also hating them for being in the spotlight that they themselves feel should be theirs. 

In the case of The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin (De Niro, Taxi Driver) is a prime example of this aspect of celebrity worship.  He desperately wants to be the next big comedic talent, and to that end, he idolizes all that is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, Arizona Dream), the Johnny Carson-like host of the biggest late night talk show in the country.  Pupkin's obsession is so all-consuming, that he spends almost all of his free time mock interviewing cardboard cutouts of famous celebrities, and concocting imaginary scenarios where he is the ultimate comedy force in the country, with everyone, including Langford himself, groveling at his feet, begging for his attention.  Most aspiring comics start off at the bottom, playing small clubs and honing their act, hoping to one day be discovered and make it on Jerry Langford.  However, Rupert is so convinced that he's ready, he stalks Langford, trying desperately to get him to listen to his routine, which he feels will blow away Langford so much that he will be assured a spot on the show.  Langford remains above it all, leaving Rupert to deal with lackeys instead, which only makes him more desperate to gain attention -- and desperate times often result in desperate measures.

After the smash success of Raging Bull, director Martin Scorsese (Casino, Gangs of New York) distanced himself from his macho, street-wise style of filmmaking to make two of the best comedies on the Eighties, The King of Comedy and After Hours.  Although he has continued to make some great dramas afterward, it's almost a disappointment that these are the only two comedies he has ever made.  When one looks back at his career, the tendency is to forget this gem, as it seems on the surface to not be in keeping with his other, more popular works, and the fact that it flopped at the box office (It made less than $3 million of its $20 million budget back), hasn't really helped its reputation. 

Misunderstood at the time of its release, The King of Comedy has garnered a modest cult following over the years, a subtly challenging work that only becomes more resonant by being prophetic as to the state of modern entertainment today.   With reality shows, daytime talk shows, "Jackass", "Girls Gone Wild", and all of the other sensationalistic fare that is shown on television and DVD, there is now an audience for people who will do anything to hold your attention, even if it is just for a few minutes, not even worried about the aftermath of their actions, just wanting to be noticed.  "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime", Pupkin remarks as part of his act, which goes to show the mentality of the modern culture to get themselves seen and heard on television, film , or radio in any way possible.  The most disturbing aspect of this comes from how bad our entertainment culture has become, in this era of hundreds of television channels, thousands of DVD releases, and all of the other venues, whereby people in need of attention must constantly try to be even more outrageous than the previous guy in order to get the notice they desperately yearn for.

Outside of Scorsese's phenomenal direction, the performances are the standouts.  Robert De Niro once again shows why he's one of the world's greatest actors, with an almost unrecognizable performance as a true celebrity geek, as loveable as he is pathetic.  With wild gesticulations, and a ceaselessly quixotic passion, he is never as outwardly scary as Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, but you sense that he has that capability inside, should other solutions not pan out.  You expect great things from De Niro, but Jerry Lewis?  In perhaps the finest role of his career, Jerry Lewis is dead-on perfection as Jerry Langford, showing a range of talent that truly shows that Lewis is more than a light comedian meant for dumb comedies.  As good as he is in a comedic fashion, it is in his dramatic delivery that he truly impresses, with a mastery of body language that shows he knows his role inside and out.  Last but not least, comedian Sandra Bernhard (Hudson Hawk) gets her first big role as Rupert's similarly obsessed friend, Masha, and steals most of her scenes.  Bernhard has never been as appealing since, but shows that she has the goods to deliver if the part is right.  The mostly improvisational delivery keeps the dialogue feeling natural and lively.

The King of Comedy is the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro, and reportedly, the film was so trying to make, the burnout kept them from making any more movies together for the following seven years (returning in the tour-de-force, GoodFellas).  Yes, it was a flop, overlooked by nearly everyone, and underrated by many critics, but as time goes by, it seems to become all the more interesting and vital.  Fans of Scorsese or any of the stars will definitely want to seek this out, and also any who like offbeat black comedies with socially aware, satirical subtexts.  Fantastic!

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo