THE KING OF COMEDY - Take No for an Answer
“The King of Comedy” shows the ugliness of the obsession with fame and a character who won’t listen
The King of Comedy
Realease Date: December 18th, 1982
Date of My First Viewing: May 28th, 2019
There is nothing sympathetic about someone having confidence in their own mediocrity. “Not taking no for an answer” is a foolish perspective when someone saying no would actually be more beneficial. If someone refuses to put in the work to get better at something yet continues to try and position themselves as an expert in their field, that is a problem. The "“struggles” they have are not cute. It is simply a delusion that is snowballing down a hill of lies. It is also something that enrages me to no end. I say all this to open my review of Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” because, man, this film struck a nerve.
Let’s get the specifics out of the way first. “The King of Comedy” tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an “aspiring” comedian who is obsessed with appearing on the late-night talk show hosted by Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin has a meeting with Langford one night, and this causes Pupkin to think he has earned himself a spot on Langford’s show. It turns out Langford was just trying to be nice while blowing him off. Things spiral out of control as Pupkin becomes more and more obsessed to the point of joining up with another deranged fan, Masha (Sandra Bernhard, and kidnapping Langford with the intention of finally getting on television.
The plot of “The King of Comedy” is very linear in nature, but Scorsese does do some creative breaks from reality at times. Certain scenes are obviously in the mind of Pupkin, so the reality of the film becomes blurred just as Pupkin’s own reality is blurred by his obsession. This lasts all the way up until the open-ended nature of the film’s climax and final scene. Pupkin is who the audience must follow so it is natural for our reality to become distorted along with his.
Now that I’ve gotten the plot specifics out of the way, let me take a little time to talk about the character of one Rupert Pupkin. When doing my research for this post, I saw where the Rotten Tomatoes consensus calls the character, “a strangely sympathetic psychopath”. The majority of that is correct because Pupkin is strange and is a psychopath, but there is absolutely nothing sympathetic about the character. Pupkin is someone who wants to be famous but does not want to do the work that is required. The confidence he has in his own abilities causes him to turn off every bit of legit criticism and helpful advice that is given by people throughout the film. I cannot recall any moment in the film where I was like, “Oh yeah… Pupkin is actually talented. He’s being given a raw deal”. Instead, I literally wrote down, “Just tell him to fuck off!”. Pupkin is someone who THINKS he should be something instead of actually being something. It is a theme Scorsese carries over from “Taxi Driver”.
The character of Pupkin and the themes presented in “The King of Comedy” struck a nerve with me because I am involved in a field that is swimming with mini-Pupkins. For those who do not know, I’m a photographer and do a lot of concert photography. That field is littered with people who think they can make it big and overnight via social media without actually putting in the work. I have extensive credits to my name, but there is no way I consider myself one of the best. On the flip people, people who haven’t done a damn thing think they are going to be the leaders of the industry because of some inflated sense of self-worth generated from social media. They “talk” a big game, but they cannot back it up. Hype can only get you so far until people will call you out on your nonsense. I don’t want to spend too much time doing an angry rant about this, but I do hope you get the point.
I do hope my criticism of Rupert Pupkin doesn’t cause you to think I hated the film. Far from it. “The King of Comedy” is quite an interesting watch, especially to see Scorsese creating a world where this one individual, Jerry Langford, is the be-all-end-all celebrity. I really did like how the film presented Langford’s “Tonight Show” analog as it would look on television. Jerry Lewis’ performance is also stellar as he plays Langford in a reserved manner, something you don’t really think of when you hear the name Jerry Lewis. Langford is a guy who always has to put on a positive public face, yet there is a sense he’s ready to crack at any moment. When Pupkin and Masha enter his life, it causes all his issues to come to the surface. Speaking of Masha, Bernhard’s turn in making Masha a different type of obsessive than Pupkin must be commended. Her character is an even sadder case, and that is saying something.
Other than being an R-rated film in the 1980’s when I was a kid, there really isn’t a reason why I’ve avoided “The King of Comedy” all these years. I am, however, glad to come around to it at this time when the themes are so very relevant to myself and the creative plight in general. Sometimes it is best to take no for an answer. You might not want to hear it, but you need to hear it. That is a big difference.