As a first class fantasist myself, The King of Comedy (1982) makes me uncomfortable. Sure, I don’t have cardboard cutouts of all my favorite stars and comedians, but I did buy a lot of posters recently and now fear that the day might come when I strike up a conversation with them. At the moment, I don’t generally denigrate my imaginary interlocutors, but after a few dozen failures, it might happen. Really, all you want is a shot. Give me a chance, will ya? But then what? Martin Scorsese asks in an interview “What do they want from you?” Marty, if they knew, they wouldn’t be asking.
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a stand up comedian. Well, really, he works for a movie company, but it isn’t in a creative capacity. In fact, it can’t be much good at all because he lives in his mother’s basement. But all he wants is to get his shot on Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) late night talk show. We never see Pupkin at the clubs doing open mics or working on his material, we only see him at work once, but we always see him hounding Langford or imagining conversations with Langford where Pupkin is impressive and impressing. Pupkin has a real relationship with fellow Langford stalker, Masha (Sandra Bernhard). When Pupkin is put off once too many, and in front of his would-be girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott), Pupkin and Masha do something a little crazy. They kidnap him.
The majority of the film is very uncomfortable. Everyone mispronounces Pupkin’s name. Pupkin puts himself into humiliating situations that go on as long as anything you see in The Office (2001). It would be funny if it weren’t for the strong sense of intruding reality. Pupkin is insistent and oblivious. Jerry Lewis’s Langford is such a reasonable (and slightly grouchy) counterweight that there isn’t enough hope to be a straight comedy or fear to be a full thriller. Mostly, it’s just sad with a small threat of violence. But that threat was never as strong as it is in even the earliest scenes of Taxi Driver (1976), so it can be incredibly funny. In one scene, Pupkin is fussing with cue cards he wrote for Langford’s ‘ransom’ call and it is played to comedic perfection. After that point, I felt free to laugh because Pupkin was no longer the vulnerable dope who was covering his insecurity with fantasies, but an actively stupid agent of his own desires. It’s really the only time where Pupkin is actually working to make his career happen.
Everything in this movie is done well, that’s to be expected from Scorsese. On the first viewing, you’ll be blown away by the genius of Jerry Lewis. I’d only seen The Nutty Professor (1963) as a child, leaving only his reputation for slapstick and appealing to the French–not exactly a recommendation. In The King of Comedy, Lewis plays the straight man and conveys the whole character we’re pretty familiar with from Somewhere (2010) or Funny People (2009) and the emptiness of “success”. But what you’ll appreciate more and more is the screenplay from Paul D. Zimmerman and Pupkin’s monologue. It ties the film together so perfectly and resonates today probably even better than it did in 1982, that you’ll be shocked how great the film has held up.