A 34-year-old messenger still living at home, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) dreams of becoming a stand-up comedy star. To force fate’s hand, he stalks and kidnaps his idol, TV talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Martin Scorsese’s 1983 movie “The King of Comedy” not only told a story but identified a malaise. Call it Pupkinitis.
“The King of Comedy” – released by 20th Century Fox on a welcome but murky-looking Blu-ray – is cracked in the most quotidian way, presenting a borderline psychotic whose delusions are mediated by TV and whose talent is basically an unrelenting need for recognition. Although he has never performed for an audience, Pupkin plans to start his career on a show watched by half of America each night.
This obnoxious narcissist inspires more fascination than empathy, although his ambition to rise from humble media consumer to adored media subject is hardly exotic. De Niro’s Travis Bickle nurtured similarly grandiose fantasies in “Taxi Driver.” The difference is that Pupkin is us; his pathology hyperbolizes the ambivalent relationship ordinary Americans have with the aristocracy of winners, who live their lives as performers in the public drama that defines our polity.
As a tale of showbiz overreaching, “The King of Comedy” has antecedents as varied as “All About Eve,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “Network.” More radical is the movie’s sense of mass culture as an all-encompassing system – the subject of the purposefully garish, proto-pop art comedies directed by Frank Tashlin in the 1950s, some of which, not coincidentally, starred Jerry Lewis. Pupkin, whose iridescent polyester sport coats and pencil-line mustache were inspired by a mannequin in a Times Square men’s store, is a cartoon comedian. He is also one of De Niro’s greatest creations.
“The King of Comedy” was very much a De Niro show. The actor brought the script, by Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman, to Scorsese in the mid-1970s, although nothing came of it until after De Niro’s heroic performance in “Raging Bull” (1980). If the actor’s Pupkin is vividly flat, his foil is unexpectedly three-dimensional: The movie was not conceived for Lewis, but it is unimaginable without him.
Playing the first serious role of his career – which turns out to be his brusque and exasperated self – the star is an objet trouvé, pure essence of celebrity. The psychological underpinning of Pupkin’s designs on Langford’s throne is immeasurably deepened by the alarming presence of the 26-year-old Sandra Bernhardt as Pupkin’s fellow autograph hound, Masha, whose sexual obsession with the star makes Pupkin’s seem almost rational.
Nearly every scene starts as a potential Pupkin fantasy, and yet, stocked with celebrities and noncelebrities playing themselves, “The King of Comedy” comes close to documentary fiction – not least in its extended use of improvisation, particularly in the scenes where Pupkin and his date (De Niro’s wife at the time, Diahnne Abbott) invade Langford’s Long Island weekend house, or the one in which Bernhardt’s high-strung and unpredictable Masha holds Langford captive.
Lewis was genuinely angry during this sequence. “The King of Comedy” was not a hit. It made people uncomfortable. Pauline Kael concluded a highly unfavorable review by calling the movie “a training film for pests, and worse.”
As a journalist then writing a profile of Scorsese, I attended a number of early screenings, among them opening night at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival and a showing organized for the editors of The New York Times Magazine. The post-mortem that followed that screening was irate. The movie was irresponsible – might it not inspire some kook to kidnap Johnny Carson? (That the would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley had been obsessed with “Taxi Driver” gave the question some relevance.)
The star-struck crowd at Cannes, however, was nonplussed. Expecting to see a movie in which the most stylish and violent of U.S. filmmakers directed the funniest man in the Gallic world, they got what amounted to a critique of their fandom – a comedy predicated on pain, need and embarrassment – and one of the richest movies of its era.