An unstable wannabe stand-up comic intrudes on the life of a popular late night talk show host in Martin Scorsese's twisted black comedy.
To say Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983) is an unconventional comedy is a huge
understatement. This is one of the most tense and singular comedies ever put on the big screen. The acclaimed filmmaker accomplishes quite a feat here. He takes on the unpleasant subject of celebrity stalking, makes the film's protagonist an annoying sociopath, and delivers a thoroughly engrossing black comedy.
The film stars Robert De Niro as a mentally unstable wannabe stand-up comic named Rupert Pupkin. While working at his nowhere job as a messenger in New York City, Rupert fantasizes about one day becoming a huge and beloved comedy star like his idol Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a Johnny Carson-type late night talk show host. Unfortunately, Rupert has neither the drive nor talent to achieve this lofty goal. The 34-year-old has a serious disconnect from reality. At his dingy, cramped house where he lives with his mother, he often conducts imaginary interviews with celebrity cardboard cutouts, pretending to be a popular talk show host like Langford.
What really sends Rupert over the edge is when he has a brief encounter with Langford. It occurs when Rupert helps Langford get safely into his limo after an overzealous female fan attacks him. Rupert convinces Langford to let him ride along with him since he helped him with the out-of-control fan. Rupert tells Langford of his ambitions to be a famous comedian like himself and asks if he'd listen to some of his material. He is so insistent that Langford humors him and tells him to call his secretary to set up an appointment . This is a huge mistake on Langford's part as he doesn't realize what an unstable and delusional person he's dealing with.
When Rupert is unable to get back in contact with Langford, he becomes increasingly desperate and obsessive, even going so far as to show up at Langford's summer home uninvited. Finally, believing he has no other alternative, he and the overzealous fan from earlier, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), kidnap Langford. Rupert calls up the producers of Langford's show to read them his demands. His one demand is that they allow him to do his stand-up routine live on the show, or he'll kill Langford. He tells them that if they allow him five minutes to do his routine on the show, he will release Langford unharmed and surrender himself peacefully to the authorities.
De Niro delivers a nuanced and finely calibrated performance as Rupert Pupkin. He does a stellar job at building the character's obsessiveness and desperation. He plays Rupert as seemingly harmless at first, more of an obnoxious pest than anything else. But he gradually becomes more aggressive, desperate and potentially dangerous as the film goes on. This is one of De Niro's most underrated performances.
And this is not the first time that the Oscar-winning actor has played an obsessive and mentally unstable character who feels shut out and ignored. There are some undeniable similarities between the character Travis Bickle (from Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver ) and Rupert Pupkin. Both characters are mentally unstable and obsessive. And both men feel ignored, shut out and isolated. They are both socially inept and have a difficult time making normal human connections and friendships.
And both characters ultimately take extreme action to get back at the world for ignoring them and shutting them out. Bickle does it in a really bloody fashion—gunning down pimps, drug dealers and other lowlifes in an explosion of violence. Rupert's revenge is far less violent but just as extreme. Travis Bickle is the more dark and internalized sociopath of the two, but they are cut from the same cloth. What the two characters also have in common is there is a tragic dimension about them. They are two sad, lonely and hopeless individuals who do something unthinkable just for someone—anyone—to take notice of them.
Sandra Bernhard gives a surprisingly strong performance as the unbalanced stalker Masha. She plays the role with panache and a demented sultriness. Bernhard more than holds her own in her scenes with De Niro. And what's more impressive is that this was only her second feature film. And comedy icon Jerry Lewis gives a solid performance as the cranky and constantly exasperated Jerry Langford.
One of the most significant things that the film examines is our culture's obsession with celebrities and the desire to become famous at any cost. Rupert risks going to prison for many years just to have five minutes in front of a huge television audience. And if you look at what people will do nowadays to get famous, it's not all that far-fetched. Released more than 30 years ago, this film's take on the desire for instant celebrity is more timely than ever. Look at all the people who line up to humiliate themselves on the endless procession of reality shows that keep being churned out. Scorsese's film touched on celebrity obsession like few films did at the time. It anticipated our total fixation with fame and celebrity culture today.
The late Paul D. Zimmerman, former film critic for Newsweek, wrote the film's excellent screenplay. This film is a truly unique and absorbing black comedy. It's the forgotten gem among Scorsese and De Niro's legendary film collaborations.
The King of Comedy at Amazon