by Ashley Naftule
“I’m sure you can understand. Doing the kind of show I’m doing, it’s mind-boggling. There’s so much stuff that comes down… you can’t keep your head clear. And if that’s the case, I’m wrong. You’re right. I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, I apologize. I’m just a human being… with all of the foibles and all of the traps… the show, the pressure… the groupies, the autograph hounds… the crew, the incompetence… those behind-the-scenes you think are your friends. You’re not sure if you’ll be there tomorrow… because of their incompetence. There are wonderful pressures that make every day… a glowing, radiant day in your life. It’s terrific. OK, if all of that means nothing… if I’m wrong,in spite of all that… then I apologize. I’m sorry. If you accept my apology… I think we should shake hands. We’ll forget the whole thing. I won’t press charges. You could be in deep trouble… but I will not press charges.”
Tied to a chair, late night TV show host Jerry Langford is trying to convince his kidnappers to let him go. Played by legendary funnyman Jerry Lewis, it’s a dead serious performance. You can see so many layers at work in Langford’s exhausted monologue: the weary resignation that he’s probably going to be killed by these lunatics; a last desperate attempt to reason with two unreasonable people; the recognition that maybe if he did things differently he wouldn’t be in this mess; and most of all, how bitterly true everything he says is. Every frame of Lewis as Langford is an image of a man who’s existence has become a life sentence, a once-sharp talent who’s been ground down into a tired, tense nub.
Released in 1982, The King of Comedy is Lewis’s finest performance as a dramatic actor. It’s also one of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films. A pitch black comedy, it practically invents the art of skin-crawling, awkward comedy. Consider shows like The Office, where so much of their laughs are generated by the oh-god-please-STOP-TALKING tension of listening to characters like Michael Scott dig their own graves. It’s hard to think of a finer avatar for cringe comedy than De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin.
With a smarmy thin mustache and the fashion sense of Pee-Wee Herman, De Niro’s Pupkin is an unbearable train wreck of a man. A hack comic with zero self awareness or understanding of boundaries, he bristles with nervous energy. Paired with the quieter, frustrated Lewis, he becomes a weird funhouse mirror of the older comic. A spazzy, socially clueless motormouth who’s clumsy and looks like he stepped out of a comic book: he’s basically Jerry Lewis as a young man. It adds a fascinating meta layer to the film, watching what’s essentially a younger version of Lewis kidnap his older self. One has to wonder if Lewis, lashed to that chair, flashbacked to Dean Martin and his other long-suffering comedy partners and finally understood how they felt all these years.
A meditation on celebrity worship, the relentless drive for fame, and the uneasy relationship between fans and creators, The King of Comedy works as both a disturbing drama and a brilliant comedy. The scenes where De Niro and his co-conspirator, super stalker Macha (played by a never-better, completely unhinged Sandra Bernhard), interact with Langford are gut-busters. De Niro even shows off a knack for physical comedy with the way he fumbles with the cue cards his hostage is trying to read off of.
What also makes the film interesting is its lack of audience surrogate. It’s hard to root for any of these characters: Rupert and Macha are damaged, broken people while Jerry is a cold, worn-out presence. At times it almost feels like his character is longing for death – perhaps a bullet in the head beats having to record another episode of his show. Anything to not have to deal with freaks like this anymore.
Lewis’s against-type casting as the straight man wouldn’t work half as well as it does if De Niro hadn’t gone The Full De Niro with his Pupkin. His Pupkin is a fully realized character – you can practically feel the flop sweat that must be coating his body every time he’s around Jerry. It’s a performance that gets even more fascinating when you look at how De Niro prepared for the role.
The actor trained himself to become a stalker by stalking his stalkers – chasing down autograph hounds and badgering them with questions to understand how they think and feel. At one point, De Niro crashed the dinner of a stalker and his mortified girlfriend and interrogated the man about his interest in him. It’s an anecdote that gets echoed in the film itself, when Pupkin and an unwitting date break into Langford’s house and get grilled by a seething Jerry.
Like most of Marty’s movies, The King of Comedy is a film that rewards rewatching. Aside from the pleasures of watching the leads do some of their best work, it boasts a sharp screenplay written by Paul D. Zimmerman. It also has unanswered questions to puzzle over – like Rupert’s mother. We never see her onscreen; she’s just a disembodied voice. When Rupert talks about how she died during his standup routine at the end of the film, is it just fiction? Or is he imagining her voice shouting at him down in his basement, where he also imagines vivid conversations and encounters with Langford? And the ending itself, where a released-from-prison Pupkin is showered with fame and adoration and his own TV show – is it another daydream of Pupkin’s, or did the lifetime schmuck finally become the real king of comedy?
It’s a similar question you can ask of the ending to Taxi Driver: Bickle being hailed as a hero after gunning down those pimps could just be a death-dream of his or a deranged hallucination. But like the ending to King of Comedy, both resolutions pack a more powerful punch if they’re “true”. Both endings are about society embracing the worst of humanity because one is a “hero” and the other’s true crime is just wanting to be famous. Which is what everyone wants, right? Who doesn’t want to be king for a day? King for a lifetime?
The beauty of the movie is that the real king of comedy, Jerry Lewis/Jerry Langford, looks like he wants to shit on his crown and flush it down the nearest toilet… and Rupert doesn’t notice it at all. It’s lonely at the top, but that doesn’t stop everybody from trying to climb up there.