By Tim Pelan
In this age of television wannabes and quick fix celebs, it is fitting to look back at The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s dark comedy of squirming embarrassment—a prescient examination of the modern age’s obsession with fame, and a film he himself acknowledges as a sequel of sorts to Taxi Driver, another classic misfit story. Both have similar, oddly named protagonists (Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, both played very differently by Robert De Niro) and both seek to make their mark on the world around them, to elevate themselves to greatness through their deeds. Whilst Travis is “God’s lonely man” and seeks redemption through a violent cathartic act, Rupert is seemingly more centered. He has an unswerving belief in his comedic “talent,” honed for years in his mother’s basement, recording gags and interviews with his creepy cut-out guests and audience. He also has a weird dysfunctional relationship with Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a fellow stalker at the doors of comedy idol Jerry Langford’s studio and office. Even with her, Rupert can’t be honest, not admitting he lives with his mother. Masha, according to Bernhard, is “looking for something or someone to pull her out of her overcompensated, rich bitch insecurity.” The focus of her crazy attention is Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. De Niro actually brought the script by Paul D. Zimmerman to Scorsese in 1974, two years before their collaboration on Taxi Driver, but he remained unconvinced until he looked at it again in the early eighties. After first considering Johnny Carson, then Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, even Dean Martin, they approached Jerry Lewis with a view to him playing Langford, and he got it immediately. Lewis brought many insights from his crazy long career in the spotlight to the film. The scene where he is stopped by an elderly lady on a payphone for an autograph, then rebuked for not talking to her nephew on the end of the line (“You should only get cancer!” she spits) was conducted by him directly from his own experience.
Zimmerman had long been fascinated with the peeling away of intimacy barriers in the minds of the more fanatical autograph hunters on the circuit. He recalled to Mary Pat Kelly, author of Martin Scorsese: A Journey, that these hunters would say things like, “Barbra’s very tough to work with.” Which means, Barbra told them to shove it up their ass. It wasn’t a stretch to consider the next step being kidnap or assassination. “Both (assassins and autograph hunters) stalked the famous—one with a pen and one with a gun.” Zimmerman settled on the object of Pupkin’s fascination being a late-night television host after reading an Esquire story about a man who kept a meticulous diary analyzing every Johnny Carson edition of The Tonight Show. Scorsese, burned from the commercial failures of New York, New York and Raging Bull, did The King of Comedy as a favor to De Niro, figuring it would be a cinch after those ambitious shoots. “The script is hilarious,” he recalled later. “But the movie was just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show.” He ended up shooting almost a million feet of film, exasperating Lewis with multiple takes. Because the subject matter weighed heavily on Scorsese’s troubled state of mind at the time, he would often turn up late to shoot. New York Times journalist Michiko Kakutani, who interviewed Scorsese at the time, remarked that the director’s apartment had “the same empty, almost antiseptic look of Jerry Langford’s.”
When Lewis took on the role he recalled to Tim Grierson, author of Martin Scorsese In Ten Scenes, “For the next eight weeks… [we] met every day, and their questions to me were related to why I have no anonymity and what’s it like being a celebrity. I proceed to tell them things that we incorporated in the script.” Back to that scene with the lady spitting venom at Jerry on the street—“What we did is we had long, long lenses so people didn’t know [we were filming]. People actually thought in the street this was happening. I was hiding, and observing you,” Scorsese said in conversation with Lewis on the eve of the Museum of Modern Art’s series “Happy Birthday, Mr. Lewis: The Kid Turns 90.” Lewis told GQ, “Originally my name in the script was Robert Langford, I said, ‘Marty! We’re going to be shooting in New York. Do yourself a favor and call him Jerry Langford.’ He said, ‘Why?’ “Because everywhere we go in New York, your construction workers and cab drivers will validate that it’s Jerry.”
De Niro met with Lewis five times, quizzing him incessantly on life in the celebrity bubble. Once contracts were signed, the method man telephoned Lewis to say that off set they would have no further contact. As Scorsese recalled, “He (Rupert) wants to be better than Jerry. He wants to hurt Jerry.” De Niro haunted New York’s comedy clubs and hung out with autograph hunters backstage. As Rupert, De Niro is breathtaking. He never before played someone so goofy, yet creepy, dropping the alpha male swagger to reveal a monster in a tacky pastel suit who won’t take no for an answer. (One of Rupert’s hideous suits came straight from a shop window dummy the actor, director and costume designer Richard Bruno espied on Broadway.) Early on, he seeks out Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a beautiful barmaid he went to school with, to impress her with his supposed friendship with Jerry. He sees himself as “The King of Comedy” and “every king needs his queen,” as he mugs to her. On the surface, he appears charming, if self-obsessed, but there is a sad, sinister creepiness to his overtures, even more off-putting than Travis’ shy chat-up of Betsy. Rupert tells Rita, as he shows her his treasured Marilyn Monroe autograph, “You know, she died alone, tragically, like so many beautiful women. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
After being politely told at Jerry’s office to return at a later date with material, Rupert imagines Jerry lapping it up and inviting him over to his country home for a weekend meeting. When fantasy construct Jerry asks him how he does it, Rupert, in a bizarrely honest moment, says “I think it’s that I look at my whole life, and I see the awful, terrible things in my life, and I turn it into something funny.”
The film is full of brilliant performances, and in the personas of Rupert and Jerry, very multi-layered. Jerry Lewis not only plays Langford in Rupert’s fantasies as a tired, overworked star in awe of his new friend and usurper’s talent, he has to play the public real-life star, and the brittle, paranoid, lonely man behind the facade. Sitting in his glass-screened apartment, reflecting himself back many times, he fends off Masha’s intrusive phone call with a weary, guarded, “How did you get this number?” Check out this fascinating and perceptive 1983 interview with Lewis on making the film by Canadian broadcaster Brian Linehan. Lewis, unlike many of his peers, avoided therapy, figuring, “If I find out what’s bothering me, I won’t be funny anymore.”
New York itself and its inhabitants are characters as much as the main players. Scorsese shot guerilla style, New Yorkers looking on as Rupert and Masha bicker on the street. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones from the Clash cameo, jeering at Bernhard, who improvises straight back. In the film’s pre-mobile age, Rupert hangs on to a payphone for grim death, convinced Jerry’s people are going to call him back, eventually falling asleep wrapped around it. Interiors are flat, like a TV show, the camera locked down. As is usual in a lot of Scorsese films, his mother plays a part, although we only hear her voice as Rupert’s mother, forever yelling down at him to keep the noise down in the basement. “Who are you talking to?” she bellows. Who indeed? His one-sided conversations are a creepy echo of Travis Bickle’s famous mirror “You talkin’ to me?” speech.
For Scorsese, a key scene occurs as Rupert returns to the studio offices, when, after his material is rejected, Rupert asks assistant Shelly Hack “Are you speaking for Jerry?” It’s a very hostile question, Scorsese says, as if Pupkin is saying, “You don’t know what goes on between Jerry and me. You’re just a lackey.” It is one of the few moments the mask slips and a vestige of Travis Bickle’s anger emerges.
Rupert is not even able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, taking Rita to Jerry’s country house as he imagined he was invited. After being embarrassed by Jerry’s understandable reaction (the anger underplayed in the presence of a woman—was Rupert being canny bringing her?), even Rita seeks a piece of his fame, stealing a trinket from the mantlepiece. Rupert and Masha then concoct a kidnap plan, holding Jerry hostage at Masha’s uptown apartment, so that Rupert is conceded a spot on Jerry’s show that evening.
Jerry first makes a plea, explaining the craziness that surrounds him all the time. Promising Rupert a chance, he’s almost convincing, but Masha doesn’t buy it, so Rupert tapes him to a chair in a funny overhead trademark Scorsese shot, like a live action cartoon. Bernhard and Jerry’s scenes together here are brilliant, showcasing her weird adulation and star fixation. Scorsese called her character “a sexual terrorist, raw, method, impulsive.” She lights a million candles, cooks (or probably has delivered) a fancy meal. “I feel completely impulsive tonight,” she coos, a total fruitcake. If Jerry doesn’t like the finest crystal glasses she got for him, then SMASH! She just flings one to the floor.
“Sometimes I’ll be doing the simplest things like taking a bath, and I’ll wonder to myself, ‘I wonder if Jerry’s taking a bath now?’ And I just wonder, I hope you’re not drowning or something.” Jerry sits on, cocooned in duct tape, appealing to her attraction to him to get free. It is both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. She pitched her performance for maximum irritation and unhinged adulation. It worked on Lewis, who suggested to Scorsese, “I think when [Langford] gets out of the tape he should punch her right in the mouth.”
The maddening thing for Jerry is how middling Rupert’s routine on the show is, yet the audience lap it up (Lewis states in the above interview he had to teach De Niro not to be so spot on with his comic timing). It seems the public will watch the “new” anything, and for Rupert, the gamble was seemingly worth it: “Better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” The ending of Zimmerman’s original script was more ambiguous, but “Marty and Bobby are realists. They made it much better, much deeper, tougher, more important.” Is Pupkin king for only a night, or does his career really take off after his incarceration? Either way, in his own mind, Rupert has already made it, just like countless deluded souls on the cavalcade of reality shows clogging our screens.
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, director Michael Powell visits Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis on the set of The King of Comedy. You can watch the full documentary here.
By the time I’d made Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Last Waltz—success, failure, all kinds of things happened. And then I kind of began my career again on Raging Bull. After making Raging Bull, I was at a different point in my life, and was able to absorb The King of Comedy better. To a point. In 1981, when I was shooting [King of Comedy], I realized that I had to wipe the slate clean as a filmmaker and start all over again. I literally started relearning how to make movies. That’s what King of Comedy really helped me to do. —Martin Scorsese on The King of Comedy’s Modern Relevance: “There Are So Many Ruperts Around Us”
According to De Niro, The King of Comedy, written by Newsweek scribe Paul Zimmerman, was a project he’d been wanting to do since the days of Travis Bickle. “Marty and I were in Cannes with Taxi Driver, and I was shooting 1900,” he said. “I was trying to convince Marty to do it, and he finally did.” It took “from 1975 or so to 1980,” admitted Scorsese. “I read it, but I didn’t quite get it. As we got further into the work, I understood it. I discovered it as we went along.” “It was coming at the end of period of filmmaking in L.A. that sort of ended,” the director continued. “Raging Bull [was released] ten days before Heavens Gate, the studio went down, and that kind of filmmaking went out. This film was one of the last vestiges of that type of picture. It just snuck in under the radar. The whole world had changed.” Asked the moderator, “What was it like doing a comedy?” “I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or what,” said De Niro. Said Scorsese, “It wasn’t a comedy, was it?” —Scorsese, De Niro, Lewis and Bernhard Recall The King of Comedy
Screenwriter must-read: Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay for The King of Comedy [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
In this video essay, Must See Films’ Darren Foley dig into Martin Scorsese’s most underrated film, The King of Comedy.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Photographed by Lorey Sebastian © Embassy International Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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