#272 The King Of Comedy

(1983, Martin Scorsese)
“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime”

So last time we looked at a comedy for April Fool’s Day (…in theory…), so let’s look at what happens when comedy is handled by Martin Scorsese. Naturally, this being Scorsese and all, The King Of Comedy isn’t really a comedy, but is instead a dark portrayal of celebrity obsession and what happens when delusions take over someone’s reality. So a nice happy family film then.

Robert De Niro (of course) plays Rupert Pupkin, an autograph hunter and wannabe comedian who is obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin desperately wants to be a guest on Langford’s show so that he can show the world his supposed comic talents, and begins to stalk his hero.

Long before the Meet The Parents franchise pretty much killed off De Niro’s enthusiasm for acting, he’d already proven his comic talents with this movie. He’s hilarious as Pupkin, albeit hilarious in a way the character doesn’t intend. He’s an awkward kind of hilarious, in the same way that Ricky Gervais in The Office was awkwardly hilarious. He’s funny because he’s so sad, but he’s also very dark, often reminding me of a somewhat more unhinged Travis Bickle – Bickle at least had some grasp on reality, while Pupkin is completely severed from it.

Lewis is also very funny, although with an actor as well-known for his comedy as Lewis, this was expected. He’s a hugely sympathetic character, trying his best to stay level-headed in the face of crazy stalker fans and persistent messages from a supposed comedian who can’t grasp more realistic methods of breaking into comedy. He often gives De Niro a run for his money.

But while the movie certainly has plenty of comic moments when it starts, The King Of Comedy gradually gets darker as events unfold. Pupkin becomes more deluded, more convinced that he and Langford are best friends and that he has a shot on the show, and soon the comedy is replaced with terror. The awkwardness becomes uncomfortable and Pupkin’s actions become more unhinged. When Pupkin drags a date to Langford’s house unannounced, it’s terrifying, and amplified when the date realises what’s going on.

The creepiness of the whole thing is amplified with Pupkin’s frequent fantasies, where he imagines he and Langford as close colleagues, with Langford praising Pupkins’ comedic talents and promising him regular spots on his show. The fact these fantasies are presented without fanfare, blending seamlessly with reality, is the thing that makes all of this incredibly effective. It leaves the viewer questioning what’s real and what’s all in Pupkin’s head, and further highlights his detachment from reality.

This all comes to a head when we finally see Pupkin’s full comedy act. The entire feels less like a comedy routine and more like therapy. Pupkin pretty much pours his heart out, revealing a troubled past and practically admitting to his actions, and does so in a way that makes it seem like it’s all made up for comedy. The audience laughs, but the real audience (that’d be us) is shocked, knowing full well that this is a man who needs serious help.

This leads to ambiguity in the ending. Scorsese cleverly presented the ending as a scene that could go either way. It could be all in Pupkin’s head, with him gaining fame off the back of his actions, or languishing in a prison cell and imagining that his release will send him into the arms of an adoring public, assuming he’s let out at all.

Flaws? I genuinely couldn’t find any. The King Of Comedy was an uncomfortable but hugely entertaining piece of cinema from start to finish, and I have nothing bad to say about it. No wonder it’s Scorsese’s favourite out of all his films.

Starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott & Shelley Hack
Written by Paul D. Zimmerman
Produced by Arnon Milchan
Cinematography by Fred Schuler
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker

Favourite Scene: That “comedy” routine at the end is pretty chilling.
Scene That Bugged Me: I found it a bit strange how flippantly Pupkin could get into Langford’s house.

Watch it if: You like dark comedy about celebrity obsession
Avoid it if: You think it’s a genuine stand-up comedy show

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Posted on April 8, 2014, in 1980s, Comedy, Thriller and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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