THE KING OF COMEDY

BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
SEPTEMBER 22, 2010

“Rupert Pupkin. P-u-p-k-I-n. It’s often mispronounced and misspelled.”

—Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro)

Nothing gets in Pupkin’s way. Through screaming diehards and passionate television audiences (real or fake), Pupkin will get what he wants, no matter how long he has to sit in your reception room without an appointment.

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) appears normal, looking to get ahead in the stand-up comedy business, without any previous experience. The Johnny Carson of the film is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the most recognized man on television. Everyone wants to be him. Everyone wants a piece of him, including Rupert Pupkin. Through Langford, you recognize there is more to Rupert than just being an extremely nice guy (this off-centeredness appears when Rupert incessantly keeps Langford from entering his apartment building the night they meet). You have to give it to Rupert; he is unrelenting in accepting failure. Some may even say obsessive.

Scorsese invents, and De Niro brandishes such a well-conceived character. Most will find it difficult to distinguish whether Rupert Pupkin is just a troubled lunatic allowed to walk the streets or whether he is a mild and misguided childlike embodiment. The fact that he still lives with his mother appears to prove the latter, but kidnapping his idol to produce results weighs on the crazy scale. Either way, the darkness added to the film through De Niro’s performance is priceless and carries the film to an entirely new level, making you question whether you should be laughing or empathizing.

Scorsese shot for the stars when casting “The King Of Comedy,” initially soliciting the one and only Johnny Carson. When Carson passed (Carson refused the role, claiming “you know that one take is enough for me”), the entire Rat Pack was entreated to participate. Instead, a friend of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, was summoned and became Jerry Langford, the insanely popular but grubby late-night talk show host. Lewis portrays the slime ball aspect of his character precisely how Scorsese intended, with his greased-over hair and pompous bravado, an aura I would never imagine coming from Johnny Carson.

De Niro as a young man, is something of a revelation for me. His screen presence in not only “King Of Comedy” but “Mean Streets” shows me a side never before seen, allowing for a more profound respect for the man. As the first encounter had with Jerry Lewis starring, he too garners my respect. Several vital scenes stick out from the film, including Rupert’s partner in crime, fellow lunatic Masha (Sandra Bernhard), having a candlelit dinner with the duct-taped Jerry Langford, confessing her undying love for him. The epitome of Rupert comes through in his interrogation with police regarding the whereabouts of Langford right before Rupert goes on stage to perform for the first time. Scorsese smartly keeps Rupert’s stand-up under wraps until the very end of the film, making one question throughout whether he is a legitimate performer under all his lunacy.

“The King Of Comedy” is undeniable, producing more career-highlighting moments for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. On its own, it would sign Scorsese and De Niro’s credibility without asking any questions. Before “Punch Drunk Love” or “Greenberg,” Scorsese was cataloging his brand of dark comedy and truly giving that genre a staple piece. Regardless of previous impressions of Martin Scorsese, you cannot deny his ingenuity and originality.

RELEASE DATE
January 1, 1983

DIRECTOR
Martin Scorsese

WRITTEN BY
Paul D. Zimmerman

STUDIO
20th Century Fox

PG

COMEDY
CRIME
DRAMA

THRILLER
109 minutes

CINEMATOGRAPHER
Fred Schuler

COMPOSER
Robbie Robertson

EDITOR
Thelma Schoonmaker

CAST
Robert De Niro
Jerry Lewis
Sandra Bernhard
Diahnne Abbott
Shelley Hack
Margo Winkler
Edgar Scherick

PRODUCED BY
Arnon Milchan

BUDGET
$19 million

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