The King of Comedy (1982)
Written by Paul D. Zimmerman
Directed by Martin Scorsese
The King of Comedy came out in the wake of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. It features no gratuitous sex or nudity, little profanity, and not one drop of blood (well DeNiro does get a small scratch on his hand in the opening scene). It is a Scorsese film with a PG rating. When it was initially released, the film was a total failure. People went in expecting laughs with a title like The King of Comedy, but instead from an uncomfortable and cringe-inducing character study about the demented nature of fame. Todd Phillips cites this as one of the primary influences on his recent movie Joker, but it’s relatively clear he couldn’t reproduce the script that makes The King of Comedy one of Scorsese’s best.
Rupert Pupkin is a nobody. He congregates with other gawkers at the exit of a television studio every night, hoping he has the chance to catch the autographs of the guests on The Jerry Langford Show. One night, Rupert is able to protect Langford from a crazed fan and takes this is an opportunity to fish for a spot doing comedy on the show. To get Rupert to back off, Langford says to call him later and hopes that is the end of it. But Rupert is an obsessive man, and between bouts of fantasizing about becoming best friends with his idol while hanging out in his mom’s basement, he sits around the reception room of the tv studio audiences waiting for a chance to speak with Langford that is never coming. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Rupert descends to more desperate measures to become famous and rise up past the mediocrity that consumes him.
Rupert Pupkin is a confounding character, a charismatic loser that makes everyone around him uncomfortable as they try not to offend. The receptionist that deals with Rupert day in and day out tries so hard to accommodate the man while hinting that he just isn’t going to speak with Langford. The assistant producer that humors Rupert by taking a cassette of his material, tries to let him down easy but is firm. In reaction to this, De Niro delivers what might be the most quintessential Boomer performance of all-time.
Like many people my age and younger have probably found, Boomers who have been gainfully employed since the 1970s/80s will give out terrible unsolicited advice about getting a job. The spiel is typically that you need to annoy your potential manager to give you the position. This involves sending in multiple resumes, like every day. Calling the possible place of future work and asking about the job every day. They might even suggest you put on your best suit, grab a briefcase, and just show up. In their disconnected minds, they assume a manager would like the cut of your jib, appreciate your spunk, and bring you onto the team. In reality, most hiring managers are looking for compliant cogs who are easily interchangeable so that, when you reach an hourly wage that is deemed as too pricy, they can cut you loose and pop in a new cheap cog. Your get up and go factor is meaningless and a deterrent from hiring you.
Rupert believes he can skip working night after night in the clubs, working out material. I mean, he first saw Jerry Langford when he did a guest spot on a talk show, and then he was a star. As much as Rupert loves Langford, he’s done little to no research about how his idol and other comedians made their careers. For this man, fame is just something you get if you are gregarious and bold enough to snatch it. He drips with entitlement, shocked that anyone would get between him and Langford. He daydreams about Langford begging him to host the show because Rupert is such a genius talent. There are allusions to Rupert’s troubled childhood of parental alcoholism and physical abuse, but Scorsese knows none of this an excuse for the character’s outlandish behavior.
The King of Comedy feels like something prescient, a commentary on an obsession with fame that was just blossoming in the 1980s. Why it works is that De Niro never goes too over the top with the character of Rupert. He finds a very narrow line between embarrassing and charming and pulls us along. Rupert never stops talking as the audience sinks down into their seats, wishing he’d just shut up. But for Rupert, his blinders on to the rest of the world, possessing no empathy, he has no reason to quit. There’s only one goal in life. “Better to be a king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime.”