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.