The King of Comedy (1982)

*. The King of Comedy was a movie that failed very badly at the box office. This shouldn’t have been that surprising. Even Martin Scorsese’s strongest critic-fans, big names like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, had major reservations. They found the movie an oddity, and uncomfortable.
*. Its reception makes me think of The Cable Guy (1996), another black comedy that seemed a little too black, or too close to home, when it came out. The Cable Guy made money (it starred Jim Carrey at the height of his celebrity), but I think the box office was still disappointing, and critics were put off.
*. Today the conventional view is that The King of Comedy (like The Cable Guy) was ahead of its time. Maybe, but we have to specify in what ways. The script by Paul Zimmerman had been kicking around for ten years (Dick Cavett was the model for Jerry Langford), and just as a satire on celebrity or the media I don’t think it was saying anything terribly new. Lauren Bacall had been stalked by a crazy fan just a couple of years earlier. But of course that was a slasher flick, and this was Scorsese.
*. In the featurette included with the DVD release both Scorsese and Sandra Bernhard argue more for it being a movie that marked the end of something, a great period or golden age of America filmmaking, than being ahead of the curve. Bernhard: “I don’t think a film like The King of Comedy could be made today.”
*. Of course, in 2019 they did try to make a movie very much like it in Joker. But Joker is set in 1981, so is it of its time or does it harken back to a lost world?

*. I’ll pursue this a bit further. Here’s Roger Ebert: “This is a movie that seems ready to explode — but somehow it never does. . . . That lack of release disturbed me the fist time I saw The King of Comedy . . . I kept straining forward, waiting for the movie to let loose and it kept frustrating me. Maybe that was the idea. This is a movie about rejection, with a hero who never admits that he has been rejected and so there is neither comic nor tragic release — just the postponement of pain.”
*. Originally, Jerry Lewis had wanted the same kind of thing Ebert found missing, some more explosive catharsis. Lewis argued that Pupkin should have killed Jerry Langford at the end but Scorsese nixed the idea and Lewis was disappointed in the result, feeling the movie didn’t have a proper finish.
*. Joker would not be so discreet or ambiguous, erupting in a climax of individual and mass violence. Why? Because in 2019 perhaps we were all Arthur Fleck. In 1983 we most definitely weren’t all Rupert Pupkin. So in that sense at least we can say The King of Comedy was ahead of its time.
*. Rupert is not a gangster but one of Scorsese’s disturbed loners, men who don’t belong to any gang or community, or who even have girlfriends. Travis Bickle and Max Cady are the other two that come to mind. These people are very dangerous, existing outside of any socializing structures (however criminal those structures may be). Does Rupert even live with his mother? Or is that another part of his fantasy? Scorsese didn’t want audiences to be able to differentiate, any more than Rupert can. Without any social connections, unless you include the equally deranged Masha, Rupert is free to make up his own reality.

*. What is Rupert’s chief fantasy? Is it fame? Yes, but only as a means to an end. That end is not his being able to marry Rita (Diahnne Abbott, De Niro’s wife at the time) but rather to get revenge. He jokes with Rita about being able to spit down on those who will be beneath him when he becomes famous. In the dream wedding scene his high school principal is made to grovel, begging forgiveness. But most of all there’s the closing monologue, which consists mainly of a catalogue of the abuse Rupert suffered at the hands of his parents, being picked on and bullied by fellow students, and even developing an eating disorder. Is all this just made up too? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Something is fueling Rupert and I think this is it.
*. It’s a testimony to De Niro’s performance that we can feel Rupert’s anger beneath his unflappably nice persona. Despite the loud suits and the funny moustache and the general air of a prolonged losing streak we sense Rupert is a dangerous and nasty man. We can understand him, but can we sympathize with him? I don’t.
*. Masha is a scary figure too, and it’s remarkable how Bernhard not only holds her own with Lewis and De Niro but actually manages to upstage them. But what happens to Masha at the end? I guess she could have afforded a good lawyer, if charges were ever laid.

*. This is a movie that makes me think and wonder. One thing I wonder about is the freeze frame that Scorsese holds on for the opening credits. Masha inside the limo, pressing up against the glass. Rupert on the outside, illuminated in a flash and staring in at her. What meaning did Scorsese see in this image that he wanted us to look at it for so long? Is it just playing with the idea of our fascination in what’s on the other side of that invisible membrane?
*. One thing I don’t wonder about is Scorsese’s comment that the visual style of the film was somehow influenced by Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903). I think that was just pulling our legs.
*. How often have movies done TV well? I think of Network but not much else. There’s something about television that doesn’t translate to the big screen. Not because they’re in competition but because they’re mediums that don’t really communicate with each other. The fact that they seem to be growing together in the twenty-first century may be erasing that difference though.
*. I really love the script, even if I share David Thomson’s sense that Scorsese might not have understood it and in many scenes the dialogue was improvised. But setting those scenes up is done perfectly. All the notes are struck just right: the televised wedding fantasy as a way of expressing Rupert’s anger; the blow up with Jerry; the way Rupert’s final monologue is funny because it’s true; the housekeeper complaining that “He’s touching everything. He’s ruining the house.” That last gave me a flashback to the scene in Pink Flamingos when Divine and her son break into the house of their enemy and rub themselves over everything. Rupert has a similar kind of taint to him.
*. It was a masterstroke to cast Jerry Lewis in the role of Langford and then get him to play the part with such quiet understatement. There’s not a trace of shtick about him. And I love how Scorsese doesn’t force anything. Look at Langford watching Rupert on the showroom TVs after he escapes Masha. We just see his face and he doesn’t say anything. What is he thinking? He’s angry, I think we can take that much for granted. But is there some grudging respect for Rupert there? Or even sadness? I can’t read his expression, and I love that I can’t.

*. Two lines stand out for me as having particular resonance. The first comes when Rupert is having dinner with Rita and he tells her that a “guy can get anything he wants if he pays the price.” What a touching credo, and one that is so ingrained in our modern ethos. But of course it isn’t true. Riches and fame are distributed randomly. Rupert works hard and believes in himself, and his stand-up isn’t terrible (though it’s not ready for prime time either). But it just isn’t going to happen for him. What does happen to him then?
*. The other line I keep thinking about comes during Rupert’s confrontation with Jerry at the latter’s house. Jerry says he’s not going to listen to Rupert’s stuff because he has a life. Rupert says he has a life too and Jerry says “that’s not my responsibility.” I think we all immediately think that’s right, but then we may wonder where our responsibilities for each other begin and end. Or do we have any?
*. The celebrity and the incel raging in his mother’s basement are at either end of a polarity, but they share a divorce from that social connection I mentioned earlier, or any sense of personal responsibility. It’s telling that Jerry is a loner too, with no wife or kids anywhere in sight. Scorsese found one of the most interesting questions raised by the film to be that of what fans want from celebrities. Obviously what Rupert wants is a foot in the door, but beyond that he wants to be Jerry. What I think Jerry understands as he looks at the row of TVs he can’t hear, is that to some extent he already is. It’s just that one of them is living the dream and the other the nightmare. And that’s not Jerry’s problem, or responsibility, but ours.

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