'The King of Comedy': Scorsese's Most Underrated Triumph
Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the word masterpiece. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull all appear on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest Movies of all time, but more importantly, have firmly established themselves into the cultural lexicon. Of course, Scorsese has made 25 feature films, most of which are better than great. But in the shuffle of his long career, one of his films, in particular, has not received the masterpiece credit that it should be receiving: The King of Comedy.
The King of Comedy follows Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an unstable, aspiring stand up comedian who lives with his mother. After briefly meeting his idol, late-night host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), he believes that his time for fame has come. Sound familiar? Yes, 2019's Joker was heavily (perhaps too heavily) inspired by this film, down to the casting of De Niro as Arthur Fleck's favorite late-night host, Murray Franklin. This inspiration has caused some viewers to go back and revisit Scorsese's film, and if you haven't, I implore you to.
Some seem to write off The King of Comedy as a trivial comedy within Scorsese's filmography, but as the tagline states, it's no laughing matter. Is the movie funny? At times, yes. But just like Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, this film is really about someone's descent into madness. Instead of the mob or Vietnam war that does it, it's celebrity worship. At first Rupert seems like a sort of weird, off-kilter guy. But once the idea that he could actually have a 1% chance of being on Jerry's show is put into his head, we see just how obsessive he is.
At home, Rupert not only practices his stand-up routines. He has full conversations with Langford, which at first play as normal scenes. Only after they begin does the camera cut back to Rupert speaking to himself, revealing that they're all in his head. However, Rupert doesn't feel like they are. Production designer Boris Leven is also owed some credit here in showing how far Rupert's fandom goes. In his basement, Rupert has built a stage with cardboard cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minnelli and has a full-scale wall with a photo of an audience.
The color and lighting in this movie also add to the tone. Unlike other films in Scorsese's catalog, the film is bright. From the streets of the city to the waiting room of Jerry's office, everything is lit up like a television stage might be. Rupert also wears snappy bright colored or patterned suits that stand out from everyone else and further shows that he's not quite like everyone else.
Scorsese has been known to put elements of humor into films like Mean Streets or Goodfellas to juxtapose the unsettling subject matter. He does something similar here, but in a way that stands out completely from his other work. There are moments in this movie that are both funny and disturbing at the same time.
When Rupert is eating dinner with his love interest, Rita (Diahnne Abbot), he shows her his autograph book and gives her his own autograph, telling her that in a few weeks "everyone will want one." She's obviously unimpressed, and he's obviously delusional. But yet, the scene evokes laughter in its uncomfortable nature. This is somewhat similar to the way Tarantino's violence can be so blunt and fast that the audience laughs out of shock. There is a scene near the end of the film with Sandra Bernhard's character and Jerry Langford that is the epitome of this humor.
The end of the film features Rupert's stand-up routine, which is surprisingly funny. Not only does he impress the fictional audience, but if he were to make these jokes in real life they would work. The genius of this scene, though, is that it gives us insight into why Rupert is the way he is. Jokes about being neglected as a child or struggling to know what "being a man" really means are not just throwaway quips; they're his backstory. As he says, "I look at my whole life and I see the awful, terrible, things in my life, and I turn it into something funny."
De Niro is known for playing straight-up crazy people: Travis Bickle, Jimmy Conway, and Max Cady, just to name a few. But he's never done it quite like this. He brings to Rupert nuanced insanity. He seems mild-mannered but there's obviously something off about him. This quiet devolution over the course of the film is incredibly hard to pull off and proves even further how large De Niro's range is (not that anyone needed more proof of that).
Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford is also a wonderful performance. Lewis sheds the slapstick style that earned him the nickname "The King of Comedy" in the 1960s in favor of a more calm, sardonic characterization. Even when Rupert has pushed him to the extreme, he's collected.
The other standout here is Sandra Bernhard as Masha, another obsessive Jerry Langford fan. Unlike Rupert, she is much louder in her obsession. In the several scenes where the two argue, she brings a fierceness that creates an offbeat character that is simultaneously hilarious and startling. Anyone who can go toe to toe with De Niro the way Bernhard does and still be memorable deserves a lot of credit.
Perhaps the reason why The King of Comedy is so good is that from a modern lens, it feels more relevant than ever. In a world obsessed with follower counts and stan culture, Rupert's behavior is still bizarre, but not that out of reach today. Take a fandom like that of K-pop group BTS. They will go on any trending hashtag, no matter if it's about politics, entertainment, or sports, and post about BTS as if they are missionaries of some kind. Fans treat the celebrities they love like gods and act as they know them, just as Rupert does. Additionally, the end of the film highlights our society's strange obsession with controversy and crime that has only grown with the rise of social media.
The film opened Cannes in 1983 to positive reviews but flopped at the box office, which I think has damaged its reputation. If you have yet to see The King of Comedy, do yourself a favor and make it a priority. From the performances to the writing, to the design, I think it is completely worthy of being placed next to Martin Scorsese's best work and should be appreciated in the same way.