The King of Comedy (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an unemployed aspiring stand-up comedian with a dream of headlining his own late-night talk show. Rupert is convinced that the way to achieve this goal is to persuade the successful Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to get him coast-to-coast airtime for ten to fifteen minutes so that the country can discover his talent. But when Jerry avoids Rupert’s requests for appointments one too many times, the latter executes a drastic method to get exactly what he wants.
Written by Paul D. Zimmerman and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” is sharp when it comes to its critique of celebrity obsession, so uncomfortable to sit through at times that I did not know whether to laugh or groan, and the themes it touches upon have become more relevant over the years especially now that we can follow our favorite celebrities in various social media. De Niro’s performance is one to be remembered.
It requires a bit of practice to be able to tell whether a scene is happening in actuality or only in Rupert’s mind. This is appropriate because we see the story through his eyes and he himself is not even aware between real and fantasy. There are even instances when he is so out of touch with reality, it fails to occur to him that certain courses of action he takes are considered criminal offenses. What matters to him is what he hopes to get out of a situation—to hell with consequences. And that is scary. We laugh at him and yet on some level we feel sorry for him. The screenplay is to be admired because it does not treat its subject like a caricature even though the picture is a satire.
There is one memorable scene right after another. One that stood out to me is the dinner between Rupert and a barkeeper named Rita (Diahnne Abbott). One is caught off-guard and assumes it is going to go smoothly… until Rupert steers the conversation into his dream of achieving fame and pulling out a book filled with his favorite stars’ autographs. While the scene is comedic, there is a sadness to it, too. Observe Abbott’s character very carefully. Rita just wants to have a nice, simple time with a man she sort of likes and yet instead of talking about one another, they are talking about other people. Instead of looking at each other, they are looking at pen marks on a white page.
Later, there is a fantasy wedding scene in which we get a chance to understand Rupert a bit more. There is an apology made about people in Rupert’s life not believing or not regarding him as important. It might explain his abnormal psychology, the irrationality of his fame-driven existence. Maybe being on television is proof that he is important. But then again perhaps it is all biology: brain circuitry gone awry or developmental problems when Rupert was a boy. There is a scene later on where Rupert makes jokes about his alcoholic parents. Perhaps there is truth there somewhere.
If I were to describe “The King of Comedy” in one word, it would be “relentless”—just like the main character. There is one awkward but telling scene right after another. Although Rupert Pupkin is obviously an extreme case of someone obsessed with attaining recognition, one still has to wonder: Why is it that many of us revere people just because they appear on television or the movies? Why are we not a society that shows the same level of enthusiasm for NASA engineers, scientists, mathematicians—those who make extraordinary contributions to society in order to make this world a better place to be in?