The King of Comedy (1983) – Scorsese’s terrifyingly funny and prescient satire on celebrity obsession

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Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as a 34-yr old man who thinks of himself as a great comedian and fashions himself as the next big star on television. One of his idols is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a popular late night talk show host. One day, he manages to pursue Langford and tries to convince him that he is an aspiring comedian and that he would be grateful if he could give him a chance to prove his talent. Langford, hoping to avoid him, tells Pupkin to call his office thinking that he’ll get the message. But Pupkin doesn’t and relentlessly pursues Langford in the hope that he’ll be able to secure him a spot on his show. When all his efforts fail, he kidnaps Langford at gunpoint along with Masha (Sandra Bernhard), another psychotic Langford stalker. Pupkin’s ransom demand is that unless he is given the opening spot on the upcoming episode of Langford’s show, he’ll be dead.

King-4The grueling filming schedules of Raging Bull  had taken a toll on Scorsese and this time, De Niro wanted to make a lighter film with him. He recommended a script by Paul D. Zimmerman, who was a film critic for Newsweek. Scorsese wanted to make The Last Temptation of Christ with De Niro playing the role of Jesus but De Niro wasn’t interested. The King of Comedy marked the fifth collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese. The character De Niro plays here is not that different from the Travis Bickle character he played in Taxi Driver. Both characters are afflicted with delusions of grandeur and live inside a fantasy world. While the fantasy scenarios inside Travis’ head were never played out, here they are and we get a clear sense of the depth of his lunacy. They are basically fully realized extensions of Travis’ “You talking to me?” scene. And, there is an ambiguous ending in this one too.

kingofcomedy-sad-jerryPupkin is a man who has turned his parents’ basement into a sort of a “lair” where he has placed cardboard cutouts of Liza Minelli and Langford and frequently carries out his “talk show” routines with them. This is a man with a morbid and chilling obsession with celebrities and would do anything to become one of them. In today’s age of popularity obsessed celebrities and even ordinary people seeking fame and validation from wherever they can find, this is a startlingly prescient film. I wasn’t quite sure I liked it on initial viewing as I was a bit confused about what kind of film this really was. I mean, I wasn’t very familiar with the black comedy genre at that point. But years later, I found myself coming back to it and I realized that it is as good and potent as any of the films Scorsese had done before, especially Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

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The film has been described by many critics as a black comedy. But to me, it’s a horror film. If someone asked me to compile a list of the scariest movie characters of all time, Rupert Pupkin would definitely be part of that list. This is someone who is as scary as the demon in The Exorcist or that Xenomorph in Alien. You know that facehugger creature in Alien that tightly latches onto someone’s face and never lets go? Pupkin behaves exactly the same way. And De Niro’s performance has such a haunting quality to it that I had trouble getting this character of my mind for almost a whole week. Hell, at times, I thought I was even behaving like him. That’s what good actors can do to you. It’s one of his most memorable roles and Scorsese calls this one his favorite of De Niro’s performances.

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