With Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman soon to be upon us I figured now would be as good a time as any to feature ol’ Marty on Classically Lacking.
With Joker still so near in my rear view, there was really only one film to be chosen.
The King of Comedy.
Released in 1983 to positive reviews and a rotten box office, this picture is a black comedy which puts Scorsese stalwart Robert De Niro in the shoes of Rupert Pupkin, a devoted super fan of talk shot host and stand-up comedian Jerry Langford (portrayed by Jerry Lewis, who plays it pretty close to home).
Okay, super fan is underselling it. Pupkin is obsessed. He is a celebrity chasing maniac with a notebook full of autographs and a heart full of a dream to become one of those adored celebs himself. Ideally, he’d reach those lofty heights the same way Jerry did: by getting a stand-up break on a talk show and becoming an overnight sensation. He figures what better way to do that than to befriend Jerry himself! Except, Jerry doesn’t really want to be friends with Pupkin, who is blatantly a weirdo, and he rejects him. Often. Until Pupkin decides there is only one thing for it. With the aid of his equally obsessed friend (played by the brilliantly abrasive Sandra Bernhard), he abducts Jerry in order to get himself on the show.
So first things first. Robert De Niro. Big Bobby. Bobby B. I’m hearing good things about The Irishman, which is a relief, because it’s been a little while since I’ve seen him in something and thought: yes, there he is. There’s the man from Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part 2, and from my favourite movie of all time (maybe) Heat. No, usually it’s oh there’s that guy from Dirty Grandpa, The Intern¸ and my second favourite movie all time (maybe) and definitely the best Scorsese/De Niro picture…
Here, he’s at his best. His portrayal of Pupkin is completely whacked and completely convincing. Travis Bickle might be cinemas psychopathic poster boy, thanks to his penchant for talking himself up in the mirror, but Pupkin is far further removed from reality than even that taxi driving maniac.
In one stand-out scene he sits in the basement of his mothers’ home and performs an imaginary talk show with Langford (Lewis) and Liza Minelli. From upstairs his mother calls down to him to ask who he is talking to, and to politely ask him to shut the hell up for a second. It could be a funny scene, but it’s not. It shows the extent of his obsession. It shows how far down the line he has already gone before we join up with him at the start of the picture. His complete and utter obsession with celebrity has broken down his perception of reality. He is a man on the edge of something terrible, and he is grinning as he does it.
To create the link with Jerry that he sees as pivotal to his breakthrough as a stand-up Pupkin waits outside one of his shows with a raging crowd of adoring fans. He acts as a bit of an impromptu security guard when things get out of hand thanks to Sandra Bernhard’s Marsha, and then uses this assistance as leverage to convince Jerry to listen to him when he leaps into his limousine as it attempts to pull away. Jerry reluctantly agrees. From this first conversation it is clear that although Pupkin says he wants to become a stand-up comedian, what he really wants is to be Jerry’s friend. He wants to have lots of celebrity friends. He wants to go to Jerry’s house for lavish parties where they talk about how fantastic they both are.
Rupert Pupkin just wants to be famous.
It doesn’t really matter how.
This is how the movie shines, and how it still resonates today. It has a clear point to make about the growing state of celebrity culture in the 80s, and that point has only grown stronger with time. All parties involved have said that there was no way that they could have predicted just how prescient this picture would turn out to be, but by today celebrity worship is far more commonplace.
It makes complete sense that a comic-book re-imagining of such a similar story would strike a chord large enough to score it as a smash hit at the box office. Joker is an obvious and well-talked about point of reference with The King of Comedy, but although the skeletons of the stories are strikingly similar, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck has more in common with De Niro’s Travis Bickle than he does with his Rupert Pupkin. Fleck and Bickle wear their pain on their bodies, and we see this in stark, naked fashion. This pain has been inflicted on them by a world which is harsh and is revealed by the camera as it revels in the dirt, grime, and garbage of New York and Gotham City. They are terrible, broken people, but we can at least see what has made them so terrible and broken even if we cannot agree with the paths that they walk.
Pupkin’s world is a far cleaner one. A far colder one. Siskel and Ebert noted in their review of The King of Comedy that it is notably devoid of music in comparison with other Scorsese movies. In turn it is also bereft of the same joy, energy, and life that comes with that. The worlds of Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street, are cruel, but they vibrate with energy. The excesses of Jordan Belfort and Henry Hill are deplorable, but they are at least shown in such a way that the audience can understand the appeal, and can therefore understand why those characters would gravitate towards such self-destructive habits.
What Rupert Pupkin wants is not shown to be desirable at all. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t fun. He wants what Jerry Langford has, and Scorsese and Lewis both take great care to show us that what he has is a big empty house, and a big empty life. He is an extremely successful, extremely lonely man. Everyone on the street knows his name, but if he doesn’t have time to make them the centre of the universe, then they turn on him viciously. That is what Pupkin wants and that is (maybe) what he gets.
Perhaps he is the only type of man who can live that life happily. Perhaps someone so completely removed from reality could actually enjoy the banal existence of the celebrity.
The King of Comedy isn’t particularly funny. It isn’t particularly fun, at all. Several times I found myself reaching for my phone, looking to distract myself from the cringe inducing actions of Rupert Pupkin and the cynical world that he inhabits. Still, it is a movie which has got better with age. It resonates now more powerfully than it ever could have back when it was released – the box office shows us that. Now, especially with Joker under our collective belts, it is most certainly worth going back to.