Have You Seen… The King of Comedy (1983)

BY MICHAEL GRANT

So now that October is over, we can finally start talking about “normal” films for a few weeks until we get to December starting with a film about a man who definitely isn’t normal by any usage of the word.

When most people think of director Martin Scorsese, they think of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull. Some people would probably think of his opinions on the Marvel movies. But we’re not here to talk about any of those movies, or that opinion. We’re going to talk about one of his lesser-known works, and with a filmography as vast as his, there are quite a few that have fallen by the wayside. 

There’s his flop of a musical, New York, New York (which originated the song New York, New York famously covered by Frank Sinatra). There’s quite a film of his early stuff that could be covered in another article like Who’s That Knocking At My Door? or Boxcar Bertha. And then there’s his religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ. But instead, we are talking about his 1983 dark comedy/drama film The King of Comedy.

If you ever watch this movie, you’ll definitely have the name of the character memorized by the end. They say it a hundred times.

The King of Comedy is about a man named Rupert Pupkin (played by Robert De Niro) who is obsessed with a talk show named Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis). Rupert is really really obsessed with Jerry. To the point that he believes in his mind that he is best friends with Jerry and that Jerry is going to have him be a guest comedian on his Johnny Carson-inspired show. 

Eventually, it all culminates in this guy kidnapping Jerry to force him to be on this show. The film’s basic premise might sound a little familiar. It was one of the main influences in the Joker movie, which was also influenced a great deal by Taxi Driver, another Scorsese movie.

This movie is really all about the performances and the main character Rupert Pupkin, is one of the most interesting characters ever to be portrayed in film. I don’t know where to begin. He is all at once: insane, obsessed, determined, pathetic, and funny. He is absolutely single-mindedly determined to get on Jerry’s show whatever it takes, And he thinks that from the moment he meets Jerry in a limo (he sneaks into Jerry’s limo early in the film, and has a 5-minute chat with him) that he’s set. 

He’s done everything he needs to do to get on the show, and he’s already friends with Jerry. And everyone throughout the film tells him that no, this isn’t how this works, you have to build up to that, but he doesn’t listen. And it’s funny, just to see him mess up everybody’s day, including Jerry’s. Robert De Niro probably delivered one of the best performances in history with the character, and apparently, to help prepare for the role, he had to meet some of his real stalkers.

I think of one scene that best summarizes the mental layers of this character. It happens early on in the film, and after you finish watching the movie and rewatch it again, it hits differently, and you understand what this man’s grasp on reality is like. It starts off with Rupert and Jerry having dinner, and they’re talking about Rupert being a guest host. And they’re very friendly with each other, a little too friendly. Soon enough, it’s revealed that it’s just Rupert by himself in a room talking to himself, and his mother is yelling at him offscreen, asking him who he’s talking to. 

The first time you watch that, you’re like “Ok, he’s his crazy stalker fanboy who lives with his mother. What a loser.” Now later in the film (minor spoilers), he reveals that his mother has been dead for nine years before the events of this film. So you go back to that scene, and you’re like, “Wow. Rupert just yelling at his mom is just a delusion. This whole scene is a delusion within a delusion.”

And that scene plays into a debate that people have about this film. Are large portions of this film (particularly) the ending a delusion in the mind of Rupert Pupkin? I remember showing this movie to my sister once, and she came up with a theory that whenever you see the color red in this film, it is an indicator that the scene is a delusion, and thus in her opinion, most of the movie is just a delusion. 

I don’t really subscribe to that logic for the most part, anyway.  While it is true that red is seen a lot, I think it’s more likely a style choice, and I believe that quite a bit of the film (including the ending) did actually play out. Why? Well, I don’t really want to say, because I don’t want the spoil the film for anyone. How it ends is ingenious, and I feel like what indicates that the ending is real, is easy to spot if you’re paying attention.

The role played by Jerry Lewis was originally offered to Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson

To get back to the performances, everyone in this film is good, especially Jerry Lewis, who was most famous for his comedies made in the 1950s and 1960s. In this movie, he gives this very bitter and mean performance, that I feel would probably be unexpected for people familiar with his work, and it’s very funny to see him like this. His character is such a jerk. He’s mean and rude to everybody. Even to people who are actually fans of his, he just acts all passive-aggressive. It probably threw fans of his off if they were just expecting him to do his usual thing.

Another performance in this movie that is really good that should get mentioned when talking about this movie is Sandra Bernhard as Masha, a woman who stalks Jerry and believes that they are in love. Before this, she mainly did stand-up, and she only had two roles (one was dubbing a Japanese film, and the other was a minor role in a comedy). 

The role of Masha was offered to Meryl Streep who turned it down

In this role, she gave it her all, delivering a very funny and obsessed performance. Apparently, the big scene between her and Jerry that happens toward the end of the film was almost entirely improvised. Sometimes improvised scenes might come off as a bit awkward, but this one is perfect. It’s perfectly awkward, unsettling, and funny.

Now, as much of this film is about mental health, it’s also a satire of celebrity worship, which is still very relevant today. Rupert Pupkin wants to be just like Jerry Langford, famous. And we see that Rupert Pupkin’s life isn’t very good in comparison to a famous life. He works a job that doesn’t make him much money, he lives alone in an apartment with giant fold-up cardboard signs of his celebrity idols (and as discussed earlier, he imagines that his deceased mother is living with him as well), and all he seemingly does in his spare time is focus on getting on Jerry’s show, so he can ultimately be somebody. 

Contrast that with the life of his idol, Jerry Langford. Jerry is famous, but in the scenes where we see him in his spare time by himself, he’s doing nothing. He doesn’t hang out with anyone, he has stalkers trying to contact him, every time he goes on a walk he’s constantly recognized and harassed, and to top it all off, now he’s got this crazy fan trying to get on his show.

One scene with Jerry on his own that sticks out is when he’s on a walk on the streets of New York, and a woman on a payphone stops him and asks him to sign an autograph for him. He awkwardly signs a magazine for her. When the same woman asks if he can say something on the phone for her nephew who’s in the hospital, he awkwardly declines, walks off, and says that he has an appointment (to which the woman responds that he should get cancer). 

It’s moments like this that really beg the question, is there really any point to becoming famous if you’re just going to end up being constantly recognized, stopped, harassed, stalked, or imitated by people in your day-to-day life?

This film is criminally underrated. When it was released in the United States in 1983 (it was released in Iceland in December of 1982 for some reason), it only made $2.5 million out of a $19 million dollar budget. A friend of mine who was alive back then told me that when it came out, people thought it would be Jerry Lewis doing his regular comedic routine, but when they found out it was more of a drama, they weren’t interested. 

I don’t know how much of that is true, but today it is one of the least talked about Scorsese films, and it’s one of his best. In today’s world of social media, it’s more relevant than it was 40 years ago, and if it was good enough to be one of the main influences for the Joker, then it’s still good enough for today’s world. In any case, stay tuned for more weird films in the future…

If you have any films suggestions to torture me with, please email me here: haveyouseen2224@gmail.com

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