The King of Comedy: Martin Scorsese's 1983 flop was way ahead of its time

Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime

Jerry Lewis, Robert De Niro,
Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in The King Of Comedy. (20th Century Fox/Alamy)

Martin Scorsese’s 1983 tragi-comedy The King Of Comedy is 40 this week, but it was well ahead of its time

In 1983, mobile phones were nudging their way into our lives and computers were in more homes than ever before. But social media was nowhere to be seen: Twitter and Facebook were at least 20 years away, Instagram and Tik Tok even further and nobody had heard of influencers. The cult of celebrity had yet to take off in the way that we know it today.

A handful of films had shown how it could take hold. Ann Baxter’s ambitious young actress shadowed her idol, Bette Davis, in 1950’s All About Eve. Souvenir hunting fans descended like vultures on Judy Garland’s superstar at the funeral in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born. But it wasn’t until the early 80s that we were presented with more graphic visions of the future.

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In the real world it was the assassination of John Lennon, and the Jodie Foster fan who shot President Ronald Reagan. On the big screen, it was Martin Scorsese’s clear eyed vision of what was to come in The King Of Comedy.

The story originated in the 70s, when the film’s screenwriter Paul D Zimmerman came across a piece about a man obsessed with Johnny Carson. Talk shows reigned supreme on US television and Carson was the king of the format.

Zimmerman started work on a screenplay with director Milos Forman but, after a few years of work, he dropped out and Zimmerman continued, getting the script to Scorsese through Robert De Niro.

The director turned it down yet, years later, when he was finishing Raging Bull, De Niro tried again and this time got the response he was hoping for. At a retrospective at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, Scorsese recalled that: “I read it but I didn’t quite get it. As we got further into the work, I understood it. I discovered it as we went along.”

THE KING OF COMEDY, Jerry Lewis, director Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, 1983. TM and ©Copyright Twentieth Century Fox Film
Jerry Lewis, director Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro on the set of The King of Comedy. (Twentieth Century Fox/Alamy)

Coming after New York, New York and Raging Bull, both of which had underperformed at the box office, the film was seen as Scorsese’s third flop in a row. But, like his boxing classic, he’d made something with longevity and which foresaw what was just over the horizon. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

In The King Of Comedy, we meet wannabe stand-up Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), a no-talent who won’t take no for an answer. His aim is to deliver the opening monologue on the Jerry Langford Show (the star of the show was played by veteran comedian Jerry Lewis) but is constantly rebuffed. With the help of Jerry-obsessed Masha (Sandra Berhard), he resorts to kidnapping Langford and holding him hostage until he’s allowed to deliver the show’s opener on live TV. And he gets his wish.

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Obsession with celebrity and fame, life constantly in the public eye, the place of the media (both public and personal). They’re the bedrock of the film, with a through line straight to today so that it feels familiar and contemporary. Uncomfortably so. And its approach has influenced films ever since.

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. (Alamy)

Single White Female (1992) with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s “Rupert” to Bridget Fonda’s “Jerry”.

Bob Ford’s (Casey Affleck) dark fascination with Jesse James (Brad Pitt) in Andrew Dominik’s brooding The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014) as the amateur freelancer desperate to impress TV executive Rene Russo to further his career. They all took their cue from Rupert Pupkin.

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And social media was added to the mix in Ingrid Goes West (2017), with Aubrey Plaza as an Instagram addicted stalker who moves to LA to impress an influencer.

Pupkin, and his accomplice Masha, cast long cinematic shadows, extending all the way to 2019, when Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker prompted seemingly endless discussion about the parallels between the two titles. Pupkin and Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck are cut from similar cloth, making Phillips’ vision something of a spiritual successor to Scorsese’s movie.

Todd Phillips gives direction to Robert De Niro on the set of 2019's Joker. (DC/Alamy)

Fleck is obsessed with a talk show presenter — his motives are different to Pupkin’s — and fantasises about being on the show. And this time it’s De Niro who’s in the host’s chair.

Like Pupkin, his comic talents are zero and both films also have the influence of the media in their sights. Inspiration and similarities aside, however, Joker isn’t funny – not even in the darkest of ways – nor was it ever intended to be. It’s much more of a modern tragedy.

The desire for fame – regardless of talent – that we see reflected in The King Of Comedy has magnified over the years. The media landscape of the 80s — TV, newspapers and magazines, payphones — has since exploded, so the rise of social media, reality TV and constant fascination with celebrity means 24/7 access for anybody with ambitions in that direction.

Prod DB © 20th Century Fox / DR LA VALSE DES PANTINS (THE KING OF COMEDY) de Martin Scorsese 1983 USA avec Robert De Niro et Jerry Lewis prisonnier, attache, kidnapping
Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy. (Alamy)

Today, the connection between a celebrity and their public can be more personal. Autograph books are gone: now it’s selfies and TikTok videos. Not that it makes becoming famous easy: it just looks like it does, making the pursuit of those 15 minutes of fame even more widespread.

It’s no different now, but that obsession with being in the spotlight has escalated. And the film saw it coming.

In Pupkin’s words, it was “Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”

The King of Comedy is streaming on Disney+.

Watch a trailer for Joker