The King of Comedy at 40: Martin Scorsese’s painful ode to the wannabe

There’s a sequence in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, where Jerry Langford, the host of a popular late-night talk show, slips out of his New York office and goes for a walk down the street. Everyone knows who he is, but how they interact with him varies. He’s charmed by a middle-aged taxi driver who greets him and tells him how much he enjoys the show. He’s happy to get an ovation from construction workers overhead. Then he’s stopped by a woman at a payphone who wants him to sign her magazine. He obliges. Then she wants him to say something to her nephew on the phone. He politely declines. As he walks away, she shouts after him: “You should only get cancer. I hope you get cancer.”

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Nothing about this is out of the ordinary. It’s surely not the first time a fan has wished cancer on Jerry for not obliging a request, and he’s probably forgotten about this woman the moment he crosses the street. His chief expression is one of annoyance, because this is the price of being a celebrity and he’s going to be paying for it the rest of his life. People invite him into their homes every night on television and he becomes part of their lives, but it’s a one-sided relationship that he couldn’t reciprocate if he wanted to. As played by Jerry Lewis, who surely knows the feeling, he looks like a man who often regrets fame, but can’t do anything about it.

One of the driest jokes in The King of Comedy – a magnificent Sahara of dry jokes – is that Jerry Langford’s annoyed expression doesn’t change much when two deranged losers kidnap him at gunpoint and tie him to a chair. Sure, this will be a more memorable irritant than having someone wish cancer on him, but it’s within the same general ballpark. His instinct in this moment is the same as it is every night outside the stage entrance, where these same two people frequently join the usual scrum of lookie-loos and autograph-seekers. He will just have to get through this miserable situation because that’s where his talent has led him.

By contrast, Rupert Pupkin has no talent, but seeks a career like Jerry’s, because that’s the destiny he’s imagined for himself. As played by Robert De Niro, his sociopathy has everything in common with Travis Bickle, the disturbed antihero of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – both are lonely, alienated, obsessive men, eager to “save” a glamorous woman who’s mostly wary of them and willing to take extreme measures to make their mark on the world. The main difference is that Rupert is a schemer, not a killer, and his delusions of grandeur include a future where he can become the king of comedy by seizing the throne.

If the Bickle connection weren’t so firm, it might be harder to identify The King of Comedy as a Scorsese film, because he departs dramatically and brilliantly from the kinetic style that had defined his work from the beginning. Gone are the restless camera moves and quicksilver edits of Raging Bull – though they’d return with a vengeance in his next film, After Hours – and in their place is a deadpan steadiness, as if Scorsese doesn’t want to overemphasize the humor. He made one of the funniest movies of the 1980s and there’s barely a laugh-out-loud moment in it.

Though a particularly painful flop for Scorsese when it was first released, The King of Comedy has since become a touchstone for films like Big Fan with Patton Oswalt, who played a sports-radio Rupert with a passion for the New York Giants, and Joker, which essentially cast De Niro in Lewis’ role. But it took time for some critics to come around on such a departure from Scorsese and from any expectations they might have for a lead character who subverts the “lovable underdog” type. He’s a creature of empty ambition, an outsider who deserves to remain one.

The kidnapping plot is only Rupert’s latest and most desperate attempt to cut the line. One night outside the stage entrance, he manages to finagle his way into Jerry’s limo after protecting him from another crazed fan, Masha (a brilliant Sandra Bernhard), who pounces on him after a taping. Jerry indulges Rupert’s pitch about his dynamite stand-up material enough to give him the classic brush-off, the number to one of several layers of secretaries who exist to turn away comedians without representation. But Rupert takes the offer seriously enough to harangue Jerry’s staff on the phone and in person, and he doesn’t accept the polite advice that he hone his act on the club circuit first.

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When he and Masha hold Jerry at fake-pistol-point and shove him into Masha’s car, it’s all part of the plan for Rupert, whose fantasies constantly outpace his grip on reality. Here’s a man who spends his spare time in the basement, sandwiched between cardboard standees of Jerry and Liza Minnelli, trading one-liners to the laughter and cheers of an imaginary audience. (When he projects too loud, his mom, voiced by Scorsese’s mother Catherine, shouts down for him to “lower it”.) One of the film’s most effective gambits is to cut straight into Rupert’s delusions by making them indistinguishable from any other scene, which is not just a clever way to pull out the rug, but a reflection of how his mind works.

It’s usually a bad idea for films to show a fictional artist’s work, but critic-turned-screenwriter Paul D Zimmerman writes a monologue for Rupert that’s not terrible, but perfectly, exquisitely mediocre. Rupert is an ardent student of the late-night monologue, and his mimicry would be enough to convince a studio audience that he belongs on television, just as he’d always dreamed. The jokes are simply hackneyed because he has nothing deeper to express. He only wants to be famous, to show up his invisible enemies and delight his invisible friends. In that, he’s a uniquely American success story.