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The King of Comedy continues to resonate as a blistering satire

The King of Comedy continues to resonate as a blistering satire

I recall seeing Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy the first night of its release—Friday, February 18, 1983—at the Montgomeryville theater with two high school friends. The film wasn’t the comedy we expected, but it was blackly funny, and I couldn’t shake it. It stayed in my head for a year and became one of the first films I rented and watched when my family bought a VCR. I couldn’t wait to see it again.

I’ve seen The King of Comedy several times over the past 35 years and I always marvel at its audacity. This is a film that gets under your skin if it doesn’t get on your nerves. It generates such palpable, cringe-inducing discomfort for viewers that people who don’t appreciate it really and truly hate it. I love how polarizing it is. A good film should make you feel something—even if it’s anger. 

It is no surprise that the film was a box office bomb. It was a real change of pace for Scorsese and DeNiro after their triumph of Raging Bull, although it has strong echoes of their earlier collaboration, Taxi Driver. DeNiro gives a truly committed performance as the film’s antihero, Rupert Pupkin. He plays this annoying, abrasive, overbearing and even passive-aggressive loser with such determination you want him to stop. I love the film’s running joke that has various characters mangling his name, as if to prove how little they respect him.

I also think that Jerry Lewis, cast completely against type, as a Johnny Carson-like talk show host named Jerry Langford, gives a phenomenal performance. His restrained expressions at what he sees, hears, and experiences speak volumes. 

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The King of Comedy is brilliant in the way it dissects our obsession with celebrity culture and zeroes in on our collective hope of being friends with famous people. This topic speaks to me as a film critic, as I deal with celebrities in my line of work and have had a few (minor) celebrity friendships over the years. I appreciate that the screenplay was written by a former film critic, Paul D. Zimmerman who knows show business and bottom feeders. I love it when Langford tells Rupert to start at the bottom, and Rupert deadpans, “That’s where I am—at the bottom.”

The film’s opening sequence sets the uneasy tone for the film. After Langford finishes taping his nightly show, he passes through throngs of autograph hounds only to get in his private car where he is accosted by Masha (Sandra Bernhard, memorable). Masha is practically feral here, literally throwing herself on Langford, whom she desires sexually. The credits come up after Langford escapes the car and she presses her hands up against the window. The freeze frame not only reflects the divide between ordinary citizens and celebrities, but also echoes star’s handprints on the sidewalks of Los Angeles.

Rupert soon extricates Jerry from the tense encounter and shares a car ride with him, behaving in the most obsequious way possible. He shows his whole hand here as well as his wrists, forearms and more. He also shows Langford his pride and joy in one of the film’s gags that always makes me smile.

How Langford suffers this fool indicates the nature of their non-relationship which escalates over the course of the film. But Rupert takes Langford at face value—because he has to; there is no alternative for him. As such, there are fantasy sequences and delusions. One of the best is a wedding scene on TV where Rupert gets an apology he obviously feels entitled to. Other daydreams have Rupert imagining Langford begging him to take over his show for six weeks. The fawning and cajoling between them is both knowing and funny. There is also a stunning and sadly real encounter in which Rupert takes his would-be girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) to visit Langford in his weekend home (without Langford’s knowledge or permission), only to be humiliated and kicked out after a harsh exchange. (He is also banished from Langford’s offices on other occasions).

These episodes, which play upon the desire for fame at any cost—“A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price,” Rupert cannily admits at one point—prompt Rupert and Masha to kidnap Langford, holding him hostage in exchange of 10 minutes of late-night TV airtime for Rupert (and possible sexual fulfillment for Masha).

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The King of Comedy provokes throughout these scenes, but there are many moments that simply inform the characters. Rupert’s scenes in his basement—playing at being on TV with life-size cutouts of Liza Minnelli and Langford, or recording his tape for Langford’s colleague, Cathy Long (Shelley Hack, excellent)—with his mother (voiced by Scorsese’s mom) interrupting—are bracing. 

Likewise, while seeing Langford at home, isolated and lonely is telling, it is his walk down a New York City street with people fawning over him and engaging him when he wants to be left alone that is most striking. When a woman he passes is on a pay phone with her nephew, Morris, she is thrilled at seeing Langford and asks him to autograph her magazine. When she imposes on him further, commanding him to say something to Morris on the phone, he politely declines, prompting her to shout at him, “You should only get cancer! Ihope you get cancer!”  I love this particular moment because it speaks to the double-edge sword of celebrity. People feel entitled to connect with folks that rely on them for their fame, but don’t really want to associate with them.

The King of Comedy film may be dated with its pay phones—there is a clever gag of Rupert protecting a pay phone where he’s expecting Langford to call—and cassette tapes, and before the explosion of cable TV and later, Instagram and Twitter. But these elements only magnify the power celebrities like Langford had back in the day. 

In the film’s end, Rupert is more famous for having kidnapped Langford than he is for his stand-up routine, which includes the film’s signature line, “Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime!” 

Scorsese’s film may be even more prescient in today’s internet age where everyone thinks they are a celebrity. This is why the blistering satire, The King of Comedy, still resonates, and why it is a film that defines me, my career, and my outlook on life. 

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