Retrospective | The King of Comedy

king of com
Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) is a tragicomic examination of the grotesqueries of unhinged fandom. The early eighties were rife with life-threatening and sometimes fatal stunts from celebrity idolators. John Lennon’s murderer Mark David Chapman and would-be Reagan assassin John Hinkley Jr. have an onscreen counterpart in Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro), a mediocre comedian whose delusions of grandeur make for cringeworthy, claustrophobic satire.

We first encounter Pupkin in the throngs of rabid fans waiting to see late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). He saves Langford from the stalker Masha — played with hilarious ferocity by Sandra Bernhard — who has trapped herself in his car. The title sequence plays over a long hold on Masha’s hysterical face, her hands planted on the glass in freeze-frame, her gaping maw an effective metaphor for the voracious appetite of celebrity bloodlust. Once Pupkin successfully disposes of her, he takes advantage of Langford’s temporary gratitude to ingratiate himself in the hopes of landing a guest spot on his show.

The following scene finds the reigning “king of comedy” Jerry Langford deposed, now playing the sycophant to Pupkin. However, it is quickly revealed that this is one of Pupkin’s fantasies. The film tricks the audience early on, before we realize that Pupkin’s fantasies are, to him, more real than reality —  Pupkin spends more time in his imagination than anywhere else. These fantasy sequences cut with disquieting seamlessness into real life, keeping the audience as unbalanced as Pupkin’s understanding of reality. The film’s clever editing invites the audience to lounge in the den of Pupkin’s psychosis alongside him and cardboard cut-outs of Liza Minelli and Langford in his apartment, where Pupkin lives with his mother.

Pupkin continues to pursue Langford with myopic fervor, though a steady stream of rejections do not deter him in the slightest. If anything, it makes him more aggressive, paralleled by the bloodthirsty Masha. Bernhard’s deranged performance provides some laugh-out-loud moments in the shudder-inducing first and second acts while she and Pupkin hunt their celebrity prey. It is painful to watch Pupkin show up in Langford’s office day after day, eventually reaching a hyper-awkward zenith when he shows up at Langford’s home, his innocent date Rita (Diahnne Abbott) in tow. Langford kicks them both out, puncturing Pupkin’s fantasy of friendship and sending him over the edge.

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

Pupkin walks a tightrope of lunacy and eventually plummets into no-holds-barred psychopathy. He inherits the delusion of his Scorsese/De Niro predecessor Taxi Driver, trading Travis Bickle’s mohawk and army jacket for an embarrassing suit and mustache. The parallels are especially apt consider the violent turn in the third act of the film — despite the violence, this is where the comedy beats pick up. Pupkin and Masha’s predatory advances on Langford descend into farce, and Langford’s icy disdain for the stalkerish pair hilariously contrasts their clumsy threats. What’s disturbing is Pupkin’s naivety, his belief that fame is just a matter of sitting in the right cab, waiting in the right offices, and befriending the right people. The punchline is Langford’s icy calm — while Pupkin’s final act might be extreme, it’s not that far off from the worship and abuse that attends Langford’s daily routine.

The King of Comedy could easily be crippled by manic-depressive musing on Pupkin’s pitiful life, but the film’s critical distance keeps sympathies for Pupkin — and everyone else — at bay. It’s a dark comedy, after all. There is a beating heart of genuine tragedy here — especially the glimpses of Pupkin’s dark childhood, withheld until the reveal of his stand-up act — but it’s more murmur than thump. The key to the film’s black comic success is the inaccessibility of emotion, a comic sensibility that helps the film succeed as an unsentimental portrayal of pathological idolatry. Pupkin cannot access reality, and we cannot access him. The result is a fascinating and disturbing look into what happens when you stick a would-be villain in the hero’s seat.

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