The King of Comedy

Joyce Millman writes about "The King of Comedy" for Salon Personal Best movies.

Published March 21, 1997 11:13AM (EST)

a schlemiel named Rupert Pupkin idolizes Jerry Langford, the king of late night talk-show hosts (read: Johnny Carson). An amateur joke-writer who has never performed anywhere except alone in his mother's basement, Rupert dreams of appearing on "The Jerry Langford Show" but is rejected by the show's coolly efficient talent bookers. So Rupert hatches a plot to get on TV: He kidnaps Jerry and holds him hostage -- with a gun-shaped cigarette lighter -- in exchange for a spot on the show.

On paper, Paul D. Zimmerman's screenplay reads like Woody Allen in his "Take the Money and Run" period. Jerry Lewis is in it, for heaven's sake! But on-screen, "The King of Comedy" skews quite differently. It's Martin Scorsese's second least popular movie, after "The Last Temptation of Christ." Which is a shame, because it's Scorsese's second greatest film, after "Taxi Driver."

Robert De Niro's whiny, childlike Rupert (he's like a dumb sitcom version of Travis Bickle -- you keep expecting him to turn to the camera and ask, "You laughin' at me?") and the film's underworldly lighting and colors, all spotlight whites and blood reds, give "King" a weird, fable-like quality. And it's one of the blackest black comedies ever made. "King" makes you squirm in your seat out of embarrassment for Rupert's excruciating lack of talent and overbearing persistence, and for the humiliation of Jerry (played by Lewis), and for Scorsese's unprotective treatment of Sandra Bernhard (as Rupert's kooky accomplice, Masha). No wonder the movie bombed -- watching it felt like a violation.

Which was Scorsese's intention. The film was released in 1983, in the wake of the assassination of John Lennon by a crazed fan and the attempt on President Reagan's life by a deranged admirer of "Taxi Driver" star Jodie Foster. "King" is Scorsese's answer to the politicians and cultural critics who blamed "Taxi Driver" for "causing" the Reagan assassination attempt.

"King" knocks down the wall between the famous and the average, but not in the way Rupert, in his imagined friendship with Jerry, desires. Scorsese puts you in the celebrity/artist's shoes and asks, "Do you have an obligation to be nice to every pest? Should you be held responsible for every unstable person who reads something into your work that isn't there?" "King" slams the People magazine culture that feeds on Americans' obsession with the rich and famous. In the film's piercing final sequence, Rupert's actions produce the desired effect -- he gets on TV, his face appears on magazine covers, he lands a book deal. And that ending threw off moviegoers who had been waiting for this insufferable loser to get his comeuppance.

But this is Rupert's comeuppance. His is a cheap fame with an expiration date; it's as hollow as the canned laughter that greets his wretched "Langford Show" monologue, as empty as his mechanical show-biz grin. "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime," he tells the audience, but the joke is on him. He stole Jerry's show but not his crown: Jerry's talent, his status, his professionalism remain forever out of reach. Jerry and his celebrity cronies can rest assured that Rupert will never be "one of them."

What prevents "King" from being a filmmaker's elitist rant about keeping the little people in their place is that Scorsese and Zimmerman want us to feel some sympathy for Rupert's pathetic misunderstanding of the order of things. So Jerry accepts that, OK, maybe he is a little too skilled at seeming like everybody's friend -- the same way that maybe Scorsese's movies are a little too flirtatiously dark, his thugs and Mafiosos and psychos a little too heroic and alive. But Scorsese stops well short of accepting responsibility for fathering the real-life Travis Bickles and Rupert Pupkins who stalk the land. Art reflects society; society is troubled. It's an ages-old tangle.

The scene where Rupert shows up at Jerry's beach house and his expectation of friend-to-friend recognition is met instead by Jerry's weariness, alarm and anger makes you laugh from nervous tension, the way a great horror movie makes you laugh. It's as if Rupert and Jerry -- and fan and filmmaker -- have entered each other's nightmares.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------