Scott: Just prior to directing The King Of Comedy, Martin Scorsese made the 1980 film Raging Bull, a luxuriant black-and-white production that brought the camera into the ring with Jake La Motta for extraordinarily stylized fight sequences, intended to make every punch and flashbulb pop in the most visceral way possible. Though Scorsese modified his technique for these sequences, it wasn’t unusual for him to use the camera dynamically; the restless camera moves in movies like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver mirror his characters’ restless souls. So the first big surprise of The King Of Comedy is how little Scorsese moves the camera, at least in comparison to his previous work (or his hyper-caffeinated follow-up, After Hours). Once again, though, the effect is purposeful: In this deadpan, blacker-than-black comedy, it’s better to play it straight.
The unmoving camera also helps emphasize the film’s other big go-to effect: Cutting straight from reality to fantasy without making a distinction between the two. Some scenes, like TV star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) begging Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) to guest-host Jerry’s show for six weeks, take no time to reveal themselves as fantasy. But others, like Rupert and would-be girlfriend Rita visiting Jerry’s estate for a party, seem fantastical, but turn out to be painfully real. Scorsese draws viewers into Rupert’s headspace without making it immediately clear whether what we’re seeing is delusional, and in the end, we’re given an ironic finish that could go either way. (I think it’s another Rupert fantasy, but the ending of Taxi Driver, which has Travis Bickle emerging as a hero for killing a pimp instead of a politician, confuses the matter.)
Tasha: I think Scorsese possibly tips his hand on that ending by having the camera linger just a little too long on Rupert, as the announcer’s introduction and the buzz of praise for him devolve into voices just repeating his name over and over, as if Rupert has arrived at his favorite part of the fantasy and is lingering there. But the genius of the film is that it’s such a cynical comedy, it’s just as easy to believe Rupert actually did manage to make himself famous with a reckless stunt. I suspect this is an Inception ending, where people will see what they want to see, and Scorsese is letting people expose their own desires and prejudices by leaving enough clues to satisfy either the “all a dream” camp or the straightforward “where are they now” camp.
Nathan: By keeping the camera uncharacteristically still, Scorsese creates a claustrophobic tone where we can’t escape the tormented psyche of Rupert Pupkin, no matter how we might want to. Scorsese’s camera looks at these characters from a pitiless, almost anthropological distance; too much style would be a distraction. That unblinking, unwavering intensity is a big part of what makes the film so extraordinarily resonant, both as an exploration of the grotesqueness of fame, and as a story about a singularly damaged person transgressing the line separating innocent fantasy from dangerous reality.
Keith: Also worth considering: Shouldn’t a film about a man who has defined his life by the rhythms of a TV talk show live within some of the same stylistic limitations? Rupert’s life is all back-and-forth between talking heads. Scorsese’s movie isn’t that, but it understands that’s how Rupert sees the world, and sometimes looks at it the same way he does, particularly in the fantasy scenes. One of my favorite sequences is the talk-show wedding fantasy. Scorsese almost seems to be going out of his way to shoot in the ugliest way possible: Unbalanced compositions, horrible lighting, cheesy dissolves. It must have been fun, but I wonder if it was hard for a director with Scorsese’s eye to make something so bad.
Noel: I’ve been a Scorsese fan ever since I first started seriously getting into movies as a teenager, but it’s taken until the last 10 years or so for me to really appreciate how hard Scorsese works at fusing the improvisatory rawness of John Cassavetes with the expressive flourish of Michael Powell. The King Of Comedy falls more on the Cassavetes side, in that even its flashes of outsized style—like the freeze-frame under the opening credits—convey ugliness and mayhem. At times, the film even feels like it was shot guerrilla-style on the streets of New York. The overall feeling of awkwardness surrounding Rupert Pupkin is enhanced by the way, throughout the movie, in the backgrounds of shots, average New Yorkers seem to be staring right at him, mildly confused and appalled.
FAME AND FANDOM
Tasha: The single element I love most about The King Of Comedy is its dual take on fame: In Rupert’s imagination, it’s a nonstop parade of chit-chat with celebrities and people groveling before him, slathering him with fulsome praise, which he generously waves away. At the same time, Scorsese shows what fame is actually like for Jerry Langford, who can’t exit his building without being mobbed, and can’t walk a few blocks without being assaulted by a crazed stalker. The major irony of the film is that Rupert is so desperate to achieve something he doesn’t understand, and that clearly doesn’t bring much joy or fulfillment to the man who has it. King Of Comedy sums it all up in that brilliant moment when an old lady using a pay phone spies Jerry and gushes over how wonderful he is, how he’s “a joy to the world”—until he says he’s too busy to chat with her nephew on the phone, whereupon she yells, “I hope you get cancer!” The whole time he’s panting after a fandom of his own, Rupert is completely failing to realize that he’s coveting a platform that will get him a bunch of possessive, fickle, and often deranged fans… like himself, for instance.
Noel: There’s the tiniest bit of (not unwarranted) self-congratulation to the way the movie depicts Rupert’s fantasies: Rupert wants to be granted his imagined benefits of fame without doing any of the grunt work, while Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Zimmerman know success requires real dedication and sacrifice. But I empathize with Rupert in a lot of ways, not because I want what he wants, but because I know how daydreams can seem so real that it’s hard to believe they aren’t right within your grasp. When Rupert makes his audition tape—which, by the way, is more concerned with getting the atmosphere of the show right than with delivering funny jokes—he can’t wait to hear a reply from Jerry’s people, because in his mind, he’s just one step away. Anyone who’s ever applied for a job, submitted a book proposal, or even bought a lottery ticket probably knows just how Rupert feels.
Nathan: In an offline conversation about the film, Scott noted that neither Jerry nor his team seems particularly surprised that he’s been kidnapped by deranged fans. Jerry seems to accept his situation with a sense of weary resignation, as the ultimate price for a level of celebrity that fills him with a profound sense of ambivalence. In a way, something as ugly as a kidnapping seems almost inevitable: When you’re that famous, and the focus of that much obsession, envy, and lust, it makes sense that that mad, uncontrollable energy might spin in the wrong direction and make you a target of the people who ostensibly worship you. In that sense, Jerry is lucky that his unhappy skirmish with unhinged fans didn’t end in murder, as in the case of Mark David Chapman and John Lennon. Given all that he’s up against, Jerry gets off relatively easy.
Keith: Sitting here in 2014, I can’t help but think The King Of Comedy doubles as a valuable document of how obsessive fandom worked before the Internet. Different kinds of obsession bring Rupert and Masha (Sandra Bernhard’s character)—and, presumably, all the others—to the door where Jerry exits each night. But it ends up taking the same form: huddling, positioning, then desperately trying to get his attention during that tiny window when they know he’ll be accessible, and they might make themselves heard. Stars used to seem a lot more distant before technology dragged them a little closer to Earth.
Tasha: The film seems to be set during a more innocent era—after Mark David Chapman, presumably, but still in a pre-paparazzi era of celebrity, and before “stalker” was a concept. Jerry seems to think nothing about personally confronting home invaders rather than calling the police, and they’re able to invade his home in the first place because he doesn’t have security systems, guards, estate walls, or alarms: His defense from the outside world is a meek butler offended by impropriety. I spent a lot of the movie thinking, “This couldn’t happen today, because…” and thinking about some of the security and secrecy I’ve been through in order to do interviews or attend TV shoots. It doesn’t seem to enter Jerry’s head that Rupert could be dangerous, even after that face-clawing experience with Masha in the car, and that seems pretty unlikely. Obviously the audience knows more about Rupert’s battiness than Jerry does, but Jerry’s clearly had his experience with fruitcakes aplenty, and seems to consider them pretty harmless. Actually, that’s what I saw in his resignation when he’s kidnapped, Nathan: a sense of “I could have these people arrested a week ago, but I underestimated them. So really, this is all my fault.”
Nathan: An important thing to remember: King Of Comedy was released not long after John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, specifically citing Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Jodie Foster as his inspiration. So it’s incredibly audacious for De Niro and Scorsese to make such a dark, daring film about the grotesque underside of fame, given how intimately and tragically familiar with those subjects they are.
Noel: And yet it was written before all that! Scorsese has said De Niro wanted to make the film with him in the mid-1970s (shortly after Taxi Driver, if I have my chronology correct), but that he didn’t feel any personal connection to the material until around the time of Raging Bull, when De Niro brought the project back up. The film definitely approaches the question of fame and fandom from both directions, asking the same question of the celebrity and the stalker: What do you want from each other? In Rupert’s case, he seems to be putting himself in what he imagines to be Jerry’s shoes, fantasizing a wonderful world where ordinary schmucks worship him. (Which, as it happens, is more Jerry’s nightmare.)
Also, let’s give it up for how well De Niro plays the desperate wannabe. His first encounter with Jerry in the back of the car, when he’s trying to deliver his obviously well-practiced spiel, but keeps nervously running out of breath, is probably something De Niro himself experienced from the receiving end. But to his credit, he doesn’t play it as a joke, or as a mockery of “his public.”
Tasha: His performance as a sweaty but determined fan is terrific, but at the same time, can you imagine what a different film this would be if Scorsese had shot it the same year as Taxi Driver? It’s only a six-year difference, but the De Niro of Taxi Driver looked starved, feral, and in his 20s, whereas by King Of Comedy, he had the extra Raging Bull weight to deal with, and he looks considerably older, closer to 40. I just assumed he was meant to be a middle-aged man, still eerily living at home, and having never managed to get any experience in stand-up. Given his obvious drive and obsession, that suggests comedy stardom is a relatively new interest for him, or he would have started pushing for fame much earlier in life. King Of Comedy would be an entirely different story in so many ways if he were a hungry, up-and-coming young comic looking for a short cut, rather than a middle-aged man with a sudden dream.
Scott: Watching The King Of Comedy again, I paid particular attention to Jerry Lewis’ performance, which is really extraordinary in the way it strips away the varnish (and schtick) of his screen persona and presents a startlingly real character. I’d stop short of calling the performance self-deprecating, but it strikes me as true to the self-defense mechanisms of the ultra-famous, who must tolerate/indulge fans’ needs, but have their limits. Nathan mentioned this earlier, but the genius of Lewis’ work here is how little difference there is between his everyday harassment by fans and this extreme situation where Rupert and Masha have abducted him. He’s annoyed, but not panicked. It’s as if he reconciled himself to the price of fame long ago, and that means tolerating, just barely, the public that demands so much from him.
COMEDY OF DISCOMFORT
Nathan: The title of The King Of Comedy seems bitterly ironic, and in many ways, the film is a caustic dramatic character study more than a conventional comedy. Yet I found King Of Comedy extremely funny. The film excels at the comedy of discomfort, drawing huge laughs from pain and awkwardness, and luxuriating in the bleakest form of dark comedy. The film finds abundant humor in the ugliness of human nature, from the woman who wishes cancer on Jerry Langford to Rupert’s pathetic assertion that even in a kidnapping, there’s still room for moments of friendship and sharing.
In our post-viewing discussion of King Of Comedy, we raised the question, “Is Rupert Pupkin funny?” He’s certainly desperately unfunny and sad in real life, but his stand-up set boasts an air of professionalism that viewers wouldn’t necessarily expect from a lunatic who’s only on television because he violently abducted his hero. There’s a fascinating disconnect between his delivery, which emulates the glib smoothness of folks like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, and the actual content of his material, which is unrelentingly grim, but not entirely devoid of craft or insight. He’s nakedly copying his idols without understanding what made them work. So is Rupert Pupkin funny? I’d have to agree with Shelley Hack’s character here: He has promise, but also a long, long way to go. What do you guys think?
Keith: I’d always thought of King Of Comedy as second-tier Scorsese (second tier still being a pretty lofty perch), but rewatching it made it go up in my estimation, and by the time we got to Rupert’s monologue, I felt like we were watching a perfect movie. That’s partly because the monologue feels like the piece that’s been missing all along, a moment when Rupert takes on more dimension than he’s had up to that point. I wouldn’t call his routine funny, exactly, but it isn’t awful. And it is a heartfelt attempt to express who he is to the world. He may be lying about his mother being dead—unless all those moments of his mother shouting down the stairs at him are fantasies, too, which isn’t impossible—but the rest of the material clearly comes from painful experience. Hearing that, his quest for fame gets more complicated. He doesn’t just want to be famous for the sake of being famous, he wants to express himself. Whether he’s brilliant or not, the monologue establishes him as something other than a pathetic hanger-on. He’s an artist.
Nathan: For all his motormouth self-disclosure, there’s a fundamental element of mystery to Rupert. Who is this guy? Where does he come from? What’s his past like? We get fascinating Polaroids of who he was, but it isn’t until the closing monologue that we get a full sense of who Rupert is as a person. It’s a performance, but one with a bitter bite of truth, and that seems appropriate: He’s a performer even when he isn’t onstage. It’s hard to tell where the act begins and his real self begins, and vice versa.
Tasha: It’s particularly fascinating how Scorsese mines extra discomfort for the audience out of Rupert’s stand-up by withholding it for so long, eliding the various times he practices or records it, so the audience has no idea what to expect when he goes onstage. Given Rupert’s established lack of experience and his lack of connection with reality, it seems like Scorsese is setting viewers up to see something phenomenally awful, and by the time he goes onstage, the tension itself is awful. Rupert isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character, which is common in modern discomfort comedy, so the tension isn’t necessarily about whether he fails—it’s about what the audience might have to sit through, both the onscreen one and the viewers at home. So it’s a huge surprise when Rupert isn’t that bad. His act seems pretty marginal—Rodney Dangerfield wry self-deprecation giving way to Woody Allen absurdist self-deprecation, followed by some literal truth that’s only funny to people not in on the joke—but the onscreen audience consistently laughs, and Scorsese never once cuts to them to reveal that their enthusiasm is all in Rupert’s head, or prompted by an “Applause” sign. So by that standard, I assume we’re meant to think he’s funny. But I enjoyed the tension more than the tepid, schticky release. And there is something deeply creepy about him joking about his mother being dead, whether it’s true and he’s actually living a Norman Bates life of multiple-personality-disorder ventriloquism, or it’s a joke and he’s getting laughs out of pretending he isn’t still living at home and under mama’s thumb.
Noel: I think Rupert is funnier when he isn’t trying so hard. When he offers to take Jerry out to dinner, “if you don’t mind just appetizers,” that may be the funniest line in the movie. If he’d only worked on channeling his natural woe-is-me persona rather than imagining himself as rich and famous, he might’ve gotten somewhere without having to commit crimes. The best art has a personal sting (which is why Scorsese waited so long to make this film). Rupert’s problem is that he really doesn’t want to be himself.
Scott: Is Rupert Pupkin funny? No. But I think he’s unfunny in a shrewdly calculated way. Here’s a guy who has been preparing for the late-night spotlight in his basement, next to standees and cardboard cutouts—not to mention the fantasies that the film renders with such vividness that they’re hard to separate from reality. So as a stand-up/host, he’s remarkably seasoned. He knows how to deliver a joke, how to work a crowd, and how to slip into the rhythms of late-night comedy. What he lacks is worldliness, empathy, and real-life experience, which are the things that animate jokes. That might not be a problem if he ever gets a staff of writers, but the jokes he does tell feel like they have whiskers on them. (Except the picture of his Pride and Joy. I can appreciate that one.)
Keith: The King Of Comedy arrived at an odd point in Jerry Lewis’ career. Though he remained famous, it had been about a decade since he could truly be called a movie star, or at least the sort of star who could reliably be counted on to open a movie. In fact, Lewis mostly sat out the 1970s, retreating after the aborted Holocaust movie The Day The Clown Cried. Prior to The King Of Comedy, he made comeback attempts in 1980 and 1982, with Hardly Working and Slapstick Of Another Kind, respectively, but neither took. But that didn’t mean Lewis was out of the spotlight. In the days before cable became commonplace, his annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association was a national event that found him clowning around with showbiz pals for a good cause, and then, as the night dragged on, starting to lose his cool as he hectored viewers and made maudlin appeals for their generosity. Some of it was an act. Sometimes the frustration and exhaustion were of the kind that was difficult to fake, a glimpse at a lonely man underneath the funnyman exterior. There’s more than a little bit of that Jerry Lewis in Jerry Langford—and more than a little bit of Johnny Carson, the character’s obvious inspiration and a man who only truly seemed comfortable on television. Because who was he if he wasn’t chatting up guests in front of a camera?
Noel: I’ve seen The Wolf Of Wall Street’s Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill compared to Martin and Lewis, and I wonder how much of an influence Lewis’ films have been on Scorsese overall. If I recall correctly, Lewis doesn’t get a mention in Scorsese’s Personal Journey essay-doc, and on the whole, “wacky” isn’t a word I’d associate with Scorsese. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lewis himself choreographed the fantasy scene in King Of Comedy where Jerry smushes Rupert’s face; it’s so un-Scorsese-like.
Keith: To be fair, there’s also a little bit of Lewis-the-clown when he’s running across the street. The gait gets a little goofy.
Tasha: When I think of Jerry Lewis, I almost exclusively picture this sort of thing. I associate him so strongly with pratfall comedy and goofy mugging (plus, in various roles, those fake buck teeth and terrible bowl haircut) that what surprised me most about King Of Comedy was how generously he plays the straight man. I don’t mean to harp on what could have been if Scorsese had made this movie radically differently, but it’s easy to imagine this film taking a completely different angle with a more high-energy, demanding version of Jerry Langford. Not Lewis playing him as the Nutty Professor; that would be ridiculous. But getting Lewis to play the role so tolerantly and seriously, with such an air of seen-it-all world-weariness, is an interesting choice for Scorsese to make with a famously manic comedian. It reminds me of the small handful of dramas that toned Robin Williams down into a sedate, emotionally banked character with deep layers of psychopathy underneath. I wonder if some of the same tension was intended here.
Noel: How many of us remember the Saturday Night Live sketch that had a Frenchman doing the dubbing for King Of Comedy in the same Nutty Professor voice he’d used since the 1960s?
Nathan: One of my favorite moments in Lewis’ performance is also among the subtlest. When Rupert crashes Jerry’s country estate, he’s understandably peeved, if not downright apoplectic, but the presence of a woman as breathtakingly gorgeous as Diahnne Abbott in Rupert’s company alters the dynamic: Jerry visibly reassesses the situation, seemingly pondering whether he might be able to separate this gorgeous woman from the lunatic she’s with. Jerry’s demands that Rupert leave, but for a moment, there’s a fascinating hint of ambiguity. It’s the kind of touch that makes King Of Comedy so resonant.
Scott: When I first saw The King Of Comedy as a teenage Scorsese obsessive, Lewis’ performance as Jerry Langford completely upended my assumptions about him, which were rooted in the received wisdom that the French were “crazy” for liking him. I’ve since come to adore many of his comedies—Hollywood Or Bust is a particular standout, though that’s owed as much to a yen for Frank Tashlin—but it’s still fascinating to see how much Lewis works his own celebrity into The King Of Comedy, and how much he simply plays this put-upon character as Scorsese and Zimmerman conceived it. The film needs a star playing himself, I think, not to comment on the career of someone like Lewis, but to get the audience to recognize that a celebrity—and a world-weary, seen-it-all, veteran celebrity at that—is in the role and know that Jerry’s experience is just an extreme version of what Lewis and others face every day.
Tasha: The King Of Comedy disc has a couple of deleted scenes: One 30-second gag with Jerry meeting more fans on the street, and then nearly six minutes of Jerry’s host monologue on the show. It definitely deserved to be deleted: He’s no funnier than Rupert is, and he has his own form of tired old schtick, so leaving the scene in just would have undermined the audience’s presumed respect for a man presented as a talented, venerable old star. (It’s becoming a truism: If you want to control whether viewers love or hate an artist in a film, don’t let the audience see the art. Just let them see other characters’ reaction to it, so they can imagine whatever version of art that would evoke that reaction for themselves.) But it’s fascinating to watch on its own, because it’s the one place where Lewis’ own familiar comedy persona visibly leaks through. There’s a little bit of in-jokeyness to him referring to a “nice lay-dee” in the audience, but mostly, his talk-show host routine is a lot of Johnny Carson with a little prescient David Letterman thrown in. At the same time, there’s a wacky edge where Lewis’ natural comedy instincts are starting to come out. It must have been hard for a comedian to do comedy in someone else’s voice and character, and he seems perpetually on the edge of slipping out of that character.
Tasha: We’ve talked about whether Rupert Pupkin is funny, but here’s another question: Is he crazy? How much of his willful rearranging of the world around him is actual mental illness, and how much is just a stubborn determination to ignore any facts that wouldn’t lead to the results he wants? It seems like a fine hair to split, but it does shade exactly how sympathetic he is as a character—how much he’s willfully ignoring all the friendliness and help he gets along the way, because it isn’t the exact friendliness and help he wants. Sometimes he seems not so much deluded as canny about how a big lie, like, “Oh, Jerry invited me to his house this weekend” will get him further faster than going through channels. Part of what makes him interesting is never knowing how crazy he might get, and thus what he might do next—much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver—but it seems like there’s more craft and method to his madness than, for instance, to Masha’s.
Noel: Something I noticed this time: Rupert goes to so much trouble to land his “queen,” and yet he doesn’t seem to have any actual romantic or sexual attraction to her. When she invites him up to her place after their weird date, he turns her down. That, to me, is kind of crazy.
Nathan: Rupert definitely has his issues, to put it mildly, but re-watching the film, I was struck by how savvy and calculating he is. At the moments he should fall apart under the pressure and stress, he’s cool as a fucking cucumber, like during the scenes when he’s dealing with the cops like a seasoned criminal in complete control of the situation, instead of a lunatic worried his insane plan will fall apart. Rupert is deluded and grotesquely narcissistic, but I also suspect he’s something of a sociopath, devoid of empathy or remorse. Perhaps that’s a side effect of the massive wall of self-delusion he’s built around himself; he honestly doesn’t seem to understand why his actions are wrong, or why Jerry doesn’t leap at the notion that they’ll share moments of sharing and friendship during violent abduction. As to the question of whether Masha is crazy: Fuck yeah. And rivetingly so.
Noel: Interesting, too, that a character played by the ferociously feminist Bernhard is tormenting a character played by the notoriously sexist Jerry Lewis. There’s some satisfaction in watching that scene today, even if it ends with him getting the upper hand.
Scott: The King Of Comedy strikes me as the dark comic companion to Taxi Driver: Both are stories of lonely men who go to extreme lengths to make their mark, and are rewarded in an ironic conclusion. In the earlier film, Travis Bickle is a branded a “hero” by the media for killing a pimp instead of a politician—there’s no real distinction for him; he just needs to kill—and here, Rupert Pupkin achieves his dream by becoming a similar kind of media narrative. In fact, it took this viewing of The King Of Comedy to make me realize that Rupert’s fantasy end is just that—a fantasy—because Travis Bickle’s has set the precedent.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote essay on how The King Of Comedy’s ambiguity stacks up against Scorsese’s other tales of villainous heroes. And tomorrow, Sandra Bernhard talks about making the film and what she thinks about its take on celebrity now.