The King of Comedy


‘…an ugly, bleak and nihilistic movie, that, as star Robert De Niro noted, said something that people didn’t want to hear….’

Both of my regular readers know that I’m no big fan of Martin Scorsese; sure, there’s some good stuff, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas all excel in their own way. But anyone who has sat through Kundun, Hugo or Silence will know that there can be a deeply boring, sanctimonious aspect to his work, something that those who revel in bloodshed seem happy to ignore in favour of his more sacred and profane texts. His 1982 flop the King of Comedy is one that’s hard to categorise; although it doesn’t have the spurting blood or Scorsese’s gangster mode, it’s also an ugly, bleak and nihilistic movie, that, as star Robert De Niro noted, said something that people didn’t want to hear.

Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a comic genius in his own mind, but as a comedian on the make, he’s going nowhere. Pupkin idolises Jerry Langdon, a household name who Scorsese considered Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin for, as well as Johnny Carson, before selecting Jerry Lewis in a rare straight performance. Pupkin hopelessly stalks Langton, trying to get him to listen to a tape of his stand–up routine and eventually falls foul of Langton’s security. Undeterred, Pupkin and his partner in crime (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Langton, and make a condition of his release that Pupkin has his own prime-time slot to try out his material.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s probably because the recent Joker film reprised themes, characters, scenes and dialogue from this film; the business of being a tragic loner doesn’t change much over four decades. Joker even copies the device of seguing from real situations into Pupkin’s imagination, a trick that puts us inside his head, but only for long enough to understand how delusional he is. Lewis downplays rigorously, but De Niro’s Pupkin seems too broadly drawn to exist in the real world; while it’s a strong statement that when we finally hear his routine, it’s dull and staid beyond belief, it’s also an anti-climax that hobbles the film’s dramatic tension.

Not all comedy is revolutionary; Pupkin’s brand is vanilla, and his failure to gain traction within the NYC comedy club and tv scene is unsurprising. But King of Comedy has its moments, including an uncomfortable stand-off between Bernhard and Lewis, taped to a chair and subject to the unwanted attentions of a deranged fan. The King of Comedy hates celebrities, fans, comedians, corporate life and just about everything that gets in front of Scorsese’s unsparing lens. Despite a lack of physical violence, it captures the desperation of the demeaning, prostrate position that our society forces the aspirational into. Funnily enough, when the same story was slathered with extreme violence in Joker, audiences lapped it up, but that’s showbiz. An eclectic supporting cast somehow includes both Victor Borge and The Clash.


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  1. Scorsese has done so much good work with his film foundation, the number of films that have been restored, many of which were neglected or not very well known, is so valuable to cinema. I’ve found so many great films through this channel.
    So, um, I suppose I’m just saying, don’t forget that too!

    I have to agree regarding the breadth of his style, his non-crime films often leave me cold. There’s something in his anxious kinetic energy isn’t there that works well for those often drug-fuelled types of films.

    Of all the non crime films Ive seen, Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore I thought was best, maybe Aviator too?

    Perhaps because he’s such a well-read historian of all types of cinema, that’s why he attempts to make genre films such as period dramas (Age of Innocence) or childrens films (Hugo)? He jsut has a love of it so gives it a go?

    I do also think his latter period has been hampered by his regular choice of cinematographer, who I really don’t like very much. Listen to the comments Marty, change your DoP!!!

    • I’m sure Marty will pick that up, these comments must be a must read for him to find out where he’s going wrong. You are right of course about his peerless championing about film, and I’ll throw in that he’s pretty good as producer and on fashion too. And it is also laudable that while he knocks out a crime film that everyone seem to love every year or so, he never stops testing his range. Away from the bloody business, Alice is a good shout, and The Age of Innocence would be a major work for anyone. But I’m pleased to hear I’m not alone in seeing a neglect of his non-genre films. They don’t get the appreciation they deserve, perhaps some future Scorsese figure will programme a season of Scorsese without the crazy. I’ve cataloged the taxing ones, but there’s something to be said for After Hours, and Wolf of Wall Street certainly seemed to click. Ballhaus was like his left arm, and Richardson’s collaborations played well on Shutter Island. It’s quite a storied career, I just feel that so many people only look at one bit. It’s a major canon largely misrepresented by a handful of films.

  2. I may have been done dirty by Joker regarding this film. It (and taxi driver) sound interesring, but the discord they served around the Joker release put me off them. It’s like the whole world was betting in them in a race to see which was the most pretentious. But maybe they’re just decent movies.

    • I’m sure the Joker team see it as homage, although a sequel presumably will have to find its own style. But it’s a shame that so much of the heavy lifting was done in scenes with quote marks round them.

    • I take your point. I guess I’m worrying away at the point that Scorsese’s violent films have far more appreciation that his more stately affairs, and I rail, perhaps misguidedly, against that. When he moves away from the gangster story, he’s in less certain ground. But great work is great work, and not further evidence needs to be considered. Few great directors make more than a handful of great movies in a lifetime. KOC is underrated and ahead of its time, but I also feel I prefer it to Casino, Cape Fear or The Irishman, all of which I feel are Scorsese by numbers. A great career has many failures…

          • Dude, do you know how POWERFUL I am? I haven’t a hope of broaching my legal defenses. If I sued myself, I’d have to counter-sue myself and absolutely destroy myself as an object lesson to all those other losers who think they can take advantage of The Bookstooge…

            • You think you are no match for yourself. But you are wrong. Have a bit of confidence in yourself, you could have the beating of yourself! Take yourself on, give yourself a chance; there is no more worthy an opponent! It’s you vs you!

              • This isn’t Kramer vs Kramer here, but the real world. It gets dirty here, and I don’t mean smudgey, but downright bottom of the bin on a Wednesday afternoon dirty.

                Why don’t YOU go up against that? Watching all of those movies surely has prepared you for such an epic battle…

                • Why are you afraid of yourself? What damage could you do to yourself? You’ve been strutting around like a peacock; it’s about time you took yourself down and gave yourself a taste of your own medicine. Who can stop you but yourself?

                  I sued myself and took myself for every penny I had, leaving me destitute, yet rich. Try it!

  3. I quite liked De Niro’s homage to TKoC in his rôle in Joker. Factoid: Phillips & Silver (writers) were inspired by Scorsese movies for their take on the Joker,mostly this one and Taxi Driver. Anyway’s this one wasn’t as good.

  4. I’ve always had a soft spot for this film, as I reckon De Niro deserves credit for playing a character so far removed from his usual roles. Also, it’s a film that doesn’t compromise. Then again, this may be why I rarely watch it – that scene where De Niro turns up at Lewis’s house (having told his girlfriend that they were invited) is particularly excruciating.

    • It’s to everyone’s credit here that they created a story that was the opposite of the Flashdance/Rocky self empowerment notion so popular at the time. Amusing to think they turned down First Blood to make this. Not surprising that it proved caviar to the general public, but the film achieves its goal, and also predicts the kind of cringe comedy that became popular. But in general, we prefer winning to losing, and the many virtues of the film were largely overlooked until Joker rebooted it with added violence.

  5. I find this improves every time I go back to it. De Niro really works being cast against type, as does Lewis. Bernhard is great too. And like you say, it’s just as relevant today. I suppose Rupert would be a wannabe influencer now, but he’s old school celebrity here. And it’s just so much better than Joker that it stands out more in comparison.

    know that I’m no big fan — signed, one of the regs

    • It’s so much better than Joker, and yet Joker is so much more successful; that’s a cornerstone of my theory that people only did Marty when he’s violent. Can’t fault the performers, but audiences seem to be uncomfortable with satire unless there’s some visceral action. Here’s a film in which people at the top of their game sneer at the losers at the bottom of the tree; it’s certainly smacks of sincerity and honesty, but it’s also bleak AF. I’m sure some Joker fans will be shocked if and when they see this…

        • Yup, whether it’s true or not, people don’t want to hear that their dreams are unlikely to land…Cable Guy is a good comparison, we just don’t like seeing films about how venal without redemption we can be…

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