No Laughing Matter
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1982’s seminal King Of Comedy, reviewed by Joel Meadows…
King Of Comedy
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard
A mere two years after the gruelling tour de force that was Raging Bull, Scorsese was back in the saddle with De Niro to make King Of Comedy, a darkly humorous take on celebrity. De Niro plays serial fantasist Rupert Pupkin, a man who lives with his mother and is exclusively obsessed with fame. He envisions himself as a stand-up comedian who believes he only requires one big break to emulate his heroes. The key conduit of his fantasy is primetime chat show host Jerry Langford (played with relish and conviction by veteran actor Jerry Lewis), a fictionalized version of Johnny Carson or David Letterman. Enabling his warped behavior is fellow fan and stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard, somewhat well cast).
It is fascinating to watch King of Comedy in 2019, a year when we have seen Warner Bros’ Joker pass $1bn at the international box office. It is safe to say that without King Of Comedy, there could be no Joker.
Contrasting De Niro’s roles in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull with the part of hapless wannabe comic Pupkin very much shows his range as an actor. Pupkin lacks the psychosis of Bickle or the reductive failure of La Motta – he is a pathetic figure, and so when he and Masha decide to kidnap Langford, one almost feels empathy for him. De Niro is authentically excruciating as Pupkin, his delusions and over-familiarity with Langford reminiscent of Cassavettes at his bleakest. Jerry Lewis is perfectly cast, and was rarely better – his turn, as a tyrannical uber-celebrity a wonderful inversion of his usual madcap work. Bernhard’s big acting as Pupkin’s partner in crime does get a little wearing after a while, however her presence doesn’t diminish the power of the film. Diahnne Abbott’s effort as Pupkin’s high school crush is excellent, as is Shelly Hack, who plays Langford’s aloof assistant Cathy.
The film flopped at the box office when it was released but it is generally considered to be a classic in the Scorsese canon. King of Comedy is actually one of Scorsese’s most subtle films, an indictment of celebrity culture with an ironic ending, as Pupkin actually gets his way thanks to his desperation. Ironically after Raging Bull, Scorsese felt dissatisfied with his career and considered retiring from making feature films. Originally Bob Fosse was set to direct the project, with Andy Kaufman in the Pupkin role, which certainly would’ve been interesting, if entirely different (and probably not as good). Scorsese was impressed with Jerry Lewis and the pair got on very well – one felt that Lewis might have been deserving of an award or two for what was a tremendous comeback performance, but like the movie itself, he was overlooked for any gongs.
King Of Comedy is a wry, well-observed critique of how the public relates to celebrity and a scabrous take on US chat show banality, and arguably more influential than it was back in 1983 – although by no means the first satirical movie about this subject, it has proven definitive. If it had been made in 2019, it would have been much darker and more sledgehammer, but it is to Scorsese’s credit that its tone remains light throughout. One genuinely feels empathy for De Niro’s Pupkin, a man who craves success yet lacks the nous to pursue it. A great film that is still relevant 36 years after its release.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well