Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is unnervingly funny through its first half, as a jerk named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) pesters his way into the life of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, in a fine performance), the king of TV talk show hosts. Pupkin’s attempts to get Langford to hear the stand-up comedy routine Pupkin has been practicing for endless hours (not to an audience, but to himself) as a way to get on “The Jerry Langford Show” are as manically funny as they are pathetic. The improvisational atmosphere that Scorsese has set up for De Niro is in large part responsible for this, because De Niro has his character down so cold he can improvise in Pupkin’s voice; and that voice is a deadened instrument. Pupkin is a television-tube baby, programmed with a pitchman’s smile and an adman’s phrase book, whose ultimate romantic fantasy is to be married to the object of his admiration (Diahne Abbott) between commercials on Jerry’s show—with perennial guest Dr. Joyce Brothers as Maid of Honor.
Pupkin’s fantasies—they make up a big portion of his life, as he seems to be without any flesh-on-flesh contact with the world—have him convinced he will be a smash on the Langford show, and therefore he must get on Langford’s show; it’s simply out of the question that he might be turned down. It follows that any means Rupert takes to insinuate himself with Jerry—even after his audition tape is turned down—are allowable, even necessary, ways to an inevitable end. Things began to get seriously scary when Rupert and his date show up at Langford’s country home (after an imaginary invitation); Rupert’s fantasies and harassment of the people around Langford were obnoxious, but the face-to-face disruption of Langford’s domestic arena is a definite danger signal.
Rupert, with the aid of kooky Langford devotee Masha (Sandra Bernhard), decides to kidnap Jerry and hold him hostage in exchange for a spot on the show. At this point, Scorsese’s movie (after a screenplay by former Newsweek film reviewer Paul D. Zimmerman) resembles both his Taxi Driver and its disturbing spinoff, the John Hinckely affair. However, Scorsese refuses to make any kind of overt judgment of Pupkin (but Rupert is so dislikable that the well-fed Langford becomes sympathetic; in particular, his dinner alone in his high-tech apartment suggests that, even though he is where Rupert would like to be, he is just as lonely). Scorsese toes the line so evenly—and so obviously gets off on De Niro’s skyrocketing performance—that when Pupkin articulates the attitude that justifies his crime, Scorsese seems weirdly close to endorsing it: “Better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.” Or perhaps Scorsese is testing us—to see if we cheer Rupert’s words in the moment before we realize that that’s just the sort of thing assassins say when they’re asked, “Why did you do it?”
First published in The Informer, March 1983
De Niro’s best performance? Scorsese’s best movie? I dunno, there are days when I think so. It’s a really unusual, timely, beautifully sustained film. Lewis brings an enormous amount of heavy irascibility to it (always present in his talk-show appearances—when he starts going on about Hitler here it’s sort of like heaven for Jerry-philes) and De Niro goes out there in a way he hasn’t done since. I mean, the film has a remarkable performance by Shelley Hack. Many levels of amazement happening here.