The King Of Comedy (1983)
Director: Martin Scorsese | Runtime: 1hr 49mins | Comedy, Drama, Thriller
A enthusiastic but unsuccessful comic adores a late night talk show host, wanting nothing more than to be a guest on his show, going as far to have a set in his house laid out for his fantastically sequences dreaming of fame and praise from his idol. When a meeting doesn’t go how he imagined, he decides to take more drastic actions to secure his notoriety.
Scorsese’s best known look at the darker end of 70’s New York is likely Taxi Driver (1976), a brilliant character study of a mans decreasing mental state trying to clean up the corrupt streets around him. Travis Bickle is played superbly by Robert De Niro, and rightfully so the film has gone down as one of the best for both director and lead actor. However, the more forgotten collaboration a few years later takes another look at the darker side of NYC, though a less desperate and bleak visualisation in 1983’s The King Of Comedy.
You could argue which is better for an age and get nowhere, though it’s the subtly of The King Of Comedy that keeps it up with the rest of Scorsese’s greats, in the restraint he has in telling his visual story of the effects of fame and the dangers of dismissing someone in need of professional help for their behaviour. De Niro plays the starring role again, this time a wannabe comedian in Rupert Pupkin, idolising the late night talk show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis). Fantasy sequences imagine Jerry asking Rupert to fill in for a few weeks on the show for him, near begging him to come on. The show needs him! No one else can do it like you! It’s all Rupert can do to get close, the level of fame Jerry has means even getting a glimpse of him outside the show is incredibly hard. He shares his obsession with Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a similarly unstable woman whose love for Jerry goes deep into the romantic infatuation.
Rupert manages a brief encounter with Jerry early on, riding in a taxi with him when he leaves the studio. After informing him of his like of the show and Jerry himself, Rupert explains his passion for comedy and the want to be featured on the show, though Jerry is visibly uncomfortable and just wants to leave his fan by the sidewalk outside his apartment building, he says he can drop a tape in and essentially audition to be on.
There’s an odd reflection between how Rupert is received by everyone in the film, and how the film itself was received on release, both misunderstood and dismissed – later, we learnt to appreciate the quality of the piece that Scorsese had created, but with Rupert there is no real appreciation of his craft, because it never reaches the heights he believes it is. The brilliance of this is he is neither particularly good or bad, he’s just fine. When we finally see the stand up routine it doesn’t bomb or sheen with a comical genius, instead we’re left thinking that his delusion into how he imagines his career to go is centred somewhere – he understands the comedy he so heavily idolises (unlike Arthur Fleck in The Joker , for example), but he doesn’t understand the world around him, and vice versa. Many times he’s just pushed away, though never maliciously, instead he just hasn’t got the procedures he must go through, like how to submit a tape for Jerry’s show for example. Spending far too long sat waiting for Jerry’s verdict, coming back to the office too many times, he doesn’t set out to deal any harm, he just wants to achieve his dream.
It really balances the line between thriller, drama and comedic satire finely, but expertly.
Potentially where The King Of Comedy succeeds so well in dealing with mental instability compared to many films combatting similar themes is the way Rupert isn’t villanised, even the final act when the tension builds and we wonder how far Rupert would go to secure his comedic notoriety we feel sympathetic towards him, wanting those around him to understand the situation Rupert must be in mentally and instead of running scared and treating him like an idiot or dismissing him completely, you want them to assist Rupert in finding the help he clearly needs.
This would be far less effective if it wasn’t for such an engaging and riveting performance from Robert DeNiro. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him in a role like this, applying what feels like the same level of devotion to the role as he did for Ray La Motta in Raging Bull (1980), but instead to the more subtle on screen profession of stand up comic, a real testament to the skills of DeNiro.
It really balances the line between thriller, drama and comedic satire finely, but expertly. Much of the time spends exploring the effects of stardom – both when reached through Jerry and the desire to reach that level of fame with Rupert – in an entertainingly bleak manner. The sequence of Rupert attempting to spend a weekend at Jerry’s house with his bartending love interest Rita (Diahanne Abbot) is mortifying for all involved, and although it feels as if it can only end in one way we’re kept on the edge of our seats, half expecting Jerry to snap, half expecting Rupert to take it even further than he already has.
The incident that causes the plot to turn and really start ramping up the tension is equal part exhilarating and tense – Rupert and Masha in way over the heads, but not seeing how they could possibly be in the wrong. With beautifully laid out sets and cinematography, Scorcese brings Rupert’s delusional thoughts out in not just the fantasy sequences but with wonderful visuals, many presenting Rupert as the famous talk show host he so wants to be with fake crowds in front of him (see the first of the pictures used at the top of the review). Much can be analysed and explored in The King of Comedy, much like Scorsese’s other greats, but this the one that people may forget to bring up when discussing the top tier of his best.