The King of Comedy (1983 )

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Cinematography by

Fred Schuler

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a stage-door autograph hound, is an aspiring, mentally-deranged stand-up comedian unsuccessfully trying to launch his career. After meeting Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, Rupert believes his “big break” has finally come. He attempts to book a spot on the show but is continually rebuffed by Langford’s staff and finally by Langford himself.

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Along the way, Rupert indulges in elaborate and obsessive fantasies in which he and Langford are colleagues and friends. Hoping to impress, Rupert invites a date, Rita, to accompany him when he decides to show up uninvited at Langford’s country home. When Langford returns to his house from a golfing round, he finds Rupert and Rita settling in. Angered, he launches into a furious tirade against Rupert, telling him that his act is mediocre and that he’s a lunatic who’ll never amount to anything. While Jerry yells at him, Rupert continues trying to stay on his good graces, until an embarrassed Rita gets Rupert to finally leave.

When the straight approach does not work, Rupert hatches a kidnapping plot with the help of Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a fellow stalker similarly obsessed with Langford. As ransom, Rupert demands that he be given the opening spot on that evening’s Jerry Langford Show (guest hosted by Tony Randall), and that the show be broadcast in normal fashion.

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The network brass, lawyers, and the FBI agree to his demands, with the understanding that Langford will be released once the show airs. Between the taping of the show and the broadcast, Masha has her “dream date” with Langford, who is duct-taped to a chair in her parents’ Manhattan townhouse. Jerry convinces her to untie him and he manages to escape.

Rupert’s stand-up routine is well received by the audience. In his act, he describes his troubled life (from growing up in a poor neighborhood with neglectful, alcoholic parents; to getting regularly bullied and beaten up during his adolescence) while simultaneously laughing at his circumstances. Rupert closes by confessing to the studio audience that he kidnapped Jerry Langford in order to break into show business. The audience laughs, believing it to be part of his act. Rupert responds by saying, “Tomorrow you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime.”

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The movie closes with a news report of Rupert’s release from prison, set to a montage of storefronts stocking his “long awaited” autobiography, King For a Night. The report informs that Rupert still considers Jerry Langford his mentor and friend and that he and his agent are currently weighing several “attractive offers”, including comedy tours and a film adaptation of his memoirs. The final scene shows Rupert taking the stage for an apparent TV special with a live audience and an announcer enthusiastically introducing and praising him, leaving the viewer to decide whether it is reality or Rupert’s fantasy.

The world that we live in…

22 June 2004 | by Anthony Piggott (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

I hate the celebrity culture. I hate the fact that people become famous, just for the sake of being famous. I hate the fact that just because a celebrity gets married or has a child, that’s front page news. I hate reality TV.

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I hate shows like “Pop Idol” (or “American Idol”), where normal people seem to think they are destined for A-list status. The fact that this film (The King of Comedy) is as old as I am, is either an all too worrying statement on society, or proves that it was way ahead of its time. Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

De Niro has always amazed me, but the fact that he seems to understand this character so well is a little overwhelming. Whether he is delivering cringeworthy gags to a cardboard audience, or embarrassing himself, obliviously, in front of Jerry Lewis, his consistency is amazing. His motives are understandable to anyone who’s ever had a dream. Perhaps it’s De Niro’s early ambition as an actor, that fuelled this shamefully overlooked performance.

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Jerry Lewis is perfect as the disgruntled TV host. A man who lives a double-life of hilarious TV personality, with a bitter persona off-screen. You can certainly relate to this man’s motivations, his love for his work, but his resistance to allow it run his personal life.

The only character I can’t totally emphasize with is Sandra Bernhard’s Masha (her actions aren’t justified as well as De Niro’s Rupert). But maybe that just goes with my aforementioned hatred for celebrity culture. The scary thing is, I know that people like this exist, and I didn’t for a second, question the feasibility of her performance.

As usual, Scorsese shows brilliant control, despite this being one of his most modest works.

“The King of Comedy” should be looked upon, now more than ever, as a very important film, that has a lot to say about the world we live in and the obsessions that we consume. 9/10

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After Raging Bull was completed, Scorsese was keen to do a pet project of his, The Last Temptation of Christ, and wanted De Niro to play Jesus Christ. De Niro was not interested and preferred their next collaboration to be a comedy. He had purchased the rights of a script by film critic Paul D. Zimmerman. Michael Cimino was first proposed as director but eventually withdrew from the project because of the extended production of Heaven’s Gate. Scorsese pondered whether he could face shooting another film, particularly with a looming strike by the Writers Guild of America. Producer Arnon Milchan knew he could do the project away from Hollywood interference by filming entirely on location in New York and deliver it on time with the involvement of a smaller film company.

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In the biography/overview of his work, Scorsese on Scorsese, the director had high praise for Jerry Lewis, stating that during their first conversation before shooting, Lewis was extremely professional and assured him before shooting that there would be no ego clashes or difficulties. Scorsese said he felt Lewis’ performance in the film was vastly underrated and deserved more acclaim.

After such a strong critical appreciation for the way in which Scorsese had shot Raging Bull, the director felt that The King of Comedy needed more of a raw cinematic style, one of which would take its cues from early silent cinema, using more static camera shots, and fewer dramatic close-ups. Scorsese has noted that Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film, Life of an American Fireman, had greatly influenced The King of Comedy‘s visual style.

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De Niro prepared for Rupert Pupkin’s role by developing a “role reversal” technique, consisting in chasing down his own autograph-hunters, stalking them and asking them lots of questions. As Scorsese remembered, he even agreed to meet and talk with one of his longtime stalkers:

The guy was waiting for him with his wife, a shy suburban woman who was rather embarrassed by the situation. He wanted to take him to dinner at their house, a two-hour drive from New York. After he had persuaded him to stay in Manhattan, [De Niro] asked him, ‘Why are you stalking me? What do you want?’ He replied, ‘To have dinner with you, have a drink, chat. My mom asked me to say hi.’

De Niro also spent months watching stand-up comedians at work to get the rhythm and timing of their performances right. Fully in phase with his character, he went as far as declining an invitation to dinner from Lewis because “he was supposed to be at his throat and ready to kill him for [his] chance.”

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According to an interview with Lewis in the February 7, 1983, edition of People magazine, he claimed that Scorsese and De Niro employed method acting tricks, including making a slew of anti-Semitic epithets during the filming in order to “pump up Lewis’s anger.” Lewis described making the film as a pleasurable experience and noted that he got along well with both Scorsese and De Niro. Lewis said he was invited to collaborate on certain aspects of the script dealing with celebrity life. He suggested an ending in which Rupert Pupkin kills Jerry, but was turned down. As a result, Lewis thought that the film, while good, did not have a “finish.”In an interview for the DVD, Scorsese stated that Jerry Lewis suggested that the brief scene where Jerry Langford is accosted by an old lady for autographs, who screams, “You should only get cancer,” when Lewis politely rebuffs her, was based on a real-life incident that happened to Lewis. Scorsese said Lewis directed the actress playing the old lady to get the timing right.

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I love it. Uncontested first-rate masterpiece from Scorsese.

10/10
Author: Mika Pykäläaho (bygis80@hotmail.com) from Järvenpää, Finland
10 September 2002

Martin Scorsese’s clever, inventive and splendidly witty little masterpiece “The King of Comedy” was highly underrated 19 years ago but nowadays it rightfully gets more of that appreciation it undoubtably deserves. My favorite Scorsese-flick will naturally always be the massively celebrated “Goodfellas” but yes, this is number two in my books (I love it even more than “Taxi driver”, even though it’s a perfect film too).

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Both “Goodfellas” and “The King of Comedy” are in my all time favorite Top 10. Robert De Niro makes the very best comedic performance of his whole career as a wannabe-famous stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin. Just observe his sensational, sharp and devoted acting in “King of comedy” and you will truly have the great pleasure of seeing a real genius at work.

Elderly Jerry Lewis is also marvelous as the melancholic and cheerless Jerry Langford. This is Lewis’ best role as an aged actor and it has absolutely nothing to got to do with the vivid pre-Jim Carrey stuff he used to do in the 50’s-60’s. Although he made the biggest hits of his career back then “The King of Comedy” is one of his greatest achievements as a real, talented actor and not just a clown (Nothing wrong with the clown, though. I do love old Lewis comedies too).

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People who claim this movie is not a comedy: I can surely agree but not without reserve. Of course this is not the traditional comedy, that goes without saying and the humor we have is very odd and black. However this is a film that really makes me laugh. Laugh a lot. Characters, acting and script are so bloody hilarious and the unbelievable story is incredibly funny I can’t help of loving every single scene. This is exactly what I would call a perfect film. 10/10.

Critical reception

Rotten Tomatoes reported that 90% of 48 critics gave the film positive reviews. Its critical consensus states: “Largely misunderstood upon its release, The King of Comedy today looks eerily prescient, and features a fine performance by Robert De Niro as a strangely sympathetic psychopath.” Although the film was well received by critics, it bombed at the box office. De Niro said that the film “…maybe wasn’t so well received because it gave off an aura of something that people didn’t want to look at or know.”

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Timeout called it “Creepiest movie of the year in every sense, and one of the best”. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars, writing, “The King of Comedy is one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to believe Scorsese made it…” He also wrote, “Scorsese doesn’t want laughs in this movie, and he also doesn’t want release. The whole movie is about the inability of the characters to get any kind of a positive response to their bids for recognition.” He concluded the film, “is not, you may already have guessed, a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective.” Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader gave the film a favorable review, calling the film, “clearly an extension of Taxi Driver” and the “uncenteredness of the film is irritating, though it’s irritating in an ambitious, risk-taking way”. Joyce Millman of Salon called it, “Martin Scorsese’s second least popular movie, after The Last Temptation of Christ.

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Which is a shame, because it’s Scorsese’s second greatest film, after Taxi Driver.However, not all critics gave the film positive reviews. Adam Smith of Empire Magazine called it “Neither funny enough to be an effective black comedy nor scary enough to capitalise on its thriller/horror elements”.

David Ehrenstein, author of The Scorsese Picture noted the mixed response of the film in his 1983 review. He stated that The King of Comedy “cuts too close to the bone for either large-scale mass audience approval or unanimous mainstream critical acclaim”. He noted how far apart the film stood to other films made in the early years of Reagan’s America which the film presented a very critical portrayal of (although the script was written well before Reagan’s election, and shooting began less than five months after Reagan took office). “At a time when the film world piles on simple-minded sentiment in thick gooey gobs, a picture like The King of Comedy appears a frontal assault. The triumph of the ‘little guy’ is revealed to be nothing more than lumpen neo-Fascist blood lust.”

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Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was one of the critics who disliked the film, describing the character of Rupert Pupkin as “Jake LaMotta without fists”. She went on to write that “De Niro in disguise denies his characters a soul. De Niro’s ‘bravura’ acting in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York collapsed into ‘anti-acting’ after he started turning himself into repugnant flesh eggies of soulless characters…..Pupkin is a nothing.” Scorsese says that “people were confused with King of Comedy and saw Bob as some sort of mannequin”. Scorsese has called De Niro’s role as Rupert Pupkin his favorite of all their collaborations.

“Taxi Driver” with comedy? It works!

10/10
Author: MovieAddict2016 from UK
30 December 2003
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

“Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”

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As Travis Bickle’s universally known line of dialogue from “Taxi Driver” has a deep meaning (“Are you talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here”), Rupert Pupkin’s closing speech of his first-ever standup comedy routine in “The King of Comedy” finalizes the entire meaning of the film, wrapping it up in one short sentence. Is it better to have one great day versus nothing? Do the ends justify the means? Two questions all of us ask ourselves at one point of time in our life.

The comparisons to Travis Bickle seem stronger on paper than they do in the film. The most striking resemblance between the two stories is that both contain the central theme of a man snapping and doing something apparently crazy. Both films star Robert De Niro, and both are directed by Martin Scorsese, which makes for an interesting discussion of relation. Some may even say that it’s a sequel in sorts.

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Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a lonely man whose daily life and routines consist around one man: Jerry Langston, a talk show host and comedian who is followed by a horde of rabid fans, including Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a fan to rival Pupkin, who admits that he has waited nine hours at a time outside Jerry’s recording studio to catch a glimpse of him as he is shoved into limos by fancy bodyguards.

Rupert is given a rare opportunity to speak to Jerry one day as he saves him from Masha, who assaulted Jerry with kisses and hugs. It is as they drive away together and Rupert talks to Jerry that he proposes his long-time dream, which is to appear on Jerry’s show as an aspiring standup comic. Of course, he’s had no experience. But Rupert swears he would be great on stage — he’s studied Jerry for years and knows timing.

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Langston gets these psychos all the time, but he doesn’t realize just how strong a fan Rupert is until he shows up at his private home with suitcases and a girl claiming to have been invited. “I made a mistake,” Rupert says. “So did Hitler,” Jerry barks.

Jerry Lewis plays Jerry Langston in a self-referential (and very unflattering) role. It’s his finest to date. The guy is a scumbag who barely tolerates fans and is cruel. Lewis has lost his manic, energetic, annoying comedy rituals seen in films such as “The Nutty Professor” and has moved on to real acting that demands true skill. Gone are the squeaky voice and the crossed eyes. Here is perhaps the wretched soul who really exists behind Jerry Lewis, as we know him.

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All of us exaggerate, but Rupert does so to an extreme. After being shoved out of Jerry’s limo the night of their confrontation with an invitation to call Jerry’s secretary to schedule a meeting, Rupert shows up at Jerry’s office claiming to have an appointment. “Is Jerry expecting you?” he is asked by a clerk. “Yes, I don’t think so,” Rupert says.

Jerry and his workers, who deny his taped comedy routine that we never hear until the end, shun Rupert. “Oh, I see, this is what happens to people like you from all of this!” Rupert yells at Jerry. “No,” he replies. “I’ve always been like this.”

So Rupert breaks down and kidnaps Jerry with the help of Masha, demanding a spot on his TV show as a ransom payment. He commands that he will be referenced to as “The King of Comedy” (hence the title), and to further demonstrate the innocence of Rupert’s character, when he shows up, he fails to see the gravity of the offence he has just committed.

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Rupert is twisted, as you may have guessed by now, but not in a Travis Bickle kind of way. He doesn’t see the bad in the world — he’s oblivious to it. “You’re so naive!” Masha tells him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it as a compliment.

Rupert lives in complete isolation, kept locked up with his mother and living his life by what he says on TV. His dialogue and mannerisms are all clichéd — he says the kind of stuff one would expect a poorly written film to feature. When he tries to impress a female bartender, and when he tries to make small talk with Jerry, he frightens both individuals (similar to Travis Bickle frightening Senator Palantine and the Secret Service Agent).

As Rupert takes the stage at the end of the film, his entire dreams have been laid forth in front of him and he takes them by the throat. It is in that truly startling moment we’ve all been waiting for when we learn that Rupert is not only funny, but pretty darn talented.

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If the movie had used Rupert’s life-long dreams as the butt end of a joke, if he had turned out to be an absolutely horrid comedian (which is what I honestly thought would happen), the film would have little effect. But as a filmgoer and critic, it ranks as one of the most surprising scenes I have ever laid eyes on.

5/5 stars.

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