Celebrity status is something many strive for, even five minutes of fame is seen as something worth attaining. However fame comes with many responsibilities and drawbacks to the individual, a complete lack of privacy, expectations to keep a public persona at all times, and even the occasional crazed fan, sometimes taking their obsession to new heights and even becoming a danger towards the object of their attention. All these ideas and more are given a humorous and compelling spin, in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy. In a contrast to both Scorsese and DeNiro’s regular dark and gritty, unflinching looks at humanity in the city. The King of Comedy provides a strange comedic look at arguably another gritty industry, entertainment. With so many of Scorsese’s films considered classics, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull to name a few. It’s easy to overlook The King of Comedy as just a second rate side project for the director. However King of Comedy provides not only a release from his usual tone, but a equal release from their popular persona and a chance to express the boundless creativity both Director and Actor are capable of, a trait the films main character is desperate to share.
Jerry Lewis, known in film as Jerry Langford, essentially plays himself, with a number of scenes inspired by actual events that transpired in Lewis’s career. Langford, the comedy corner stone of live television, spends most of his off screen life dealing with the numerous crazed fans, anxious for his attention, including the insanely fanatic Masha (Sandra Bernhard). In an attempt to meet his idol, Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) acts as a make shift bodyguard one night and ends up sharing a car with Langford. Pupkin essentially uses this meeting as fuel for his delusions of grandeur, believing himself worth of stepping in to Langford’s shoes despite any actual proof of his comedic abilities.
Pupkin displays many of the traits that the extremist fan is known for, creating a character that may even be more dangerous than previous DeNiro character’s such as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or Johnny Boy (Mean Streets). His delusions, many of which visible to the audience, become his driving force, as he becomes more and more obsessive and believes that he is doing the world a favour by going to some of the lengths he does, including resorting to kidnapping, extortion and blackmail. Even when the truth is screamed in his face, he refuses to believe it, instead seeing Langford’s actions as jealousy towards him. The true genius in the films portrayal of Pupkin, is the hiding of his comedic material. The audience is given no evidence other than his fantasies throughout as to whether or not Pupkin is deserving of any form of public recognition, leading to a truly well done and smile inducing payoff in the final act. His need for attention, especially from his long time crush Rita (Diahnne Abbott), creates one of the most honest, painful and intense view of humiliation and denial shown on film.
While many would consider The King of Comedy as a minor Scorsese film, especially compared to the director’s other pieces like The Wolf of Wall Street or Casino. Its importance and impact has only grown over time. It’s view of celebrity culture and fanatic behaviour rings more true in the social media enabled 21st century than it perhaps ever has before. The rise of applications such as Twitter, provide the general public with a means of equal communication with those that they may idolise and admire. The parasocial relationship is now in a strange gray area, that The King of Comedy shows brilliantly.
A true example that just because a film was poorly received at release, that doesn’t mean that it cannot gain an importance.
“Better to be King for a night, then schmuck for a lifetime.”