“Better to be king for a night than shmuck for a lifetime.”
The opening moments of The King of Comedy, as iconic star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), is ushered to a waiting car surrounded by the chaotic frenzy of thrill-seekers, capture the essence of celebrity in the modern age.
Jerry gets shoved about and manhandled as an obsessive young fan sneaks into his car and nearly squeezes him to death. The freeze-frame credits capturing her outstretched hands on the windowpane of his car has Scorsese’s sense of the cinematic. As Ray Charles’ “Come Rain or Come Shine” plays, we become increasingly aware of film’s ability to capture time and halt it completely.
The punchline comes in the form of one Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). He’s an avid admirer of Jerry Langford in his own right, and he just happens to sneak into the car with Jerry as it drives away, leaving the hordes behind. Now he has his chance to consort with his agitated hero.
Rupert lets him know how he’s biding his time until he gets his big break. He’s trying not to be pushy, but he still manages to cross some invisible like as he uncomfortably follows Jerry all the way up to the steps of his apartment.
Lewis builds his performance out of playing it straight and a bit harried and belligerent. He feels much more close to home than one of his prototypical clowns. The buffoonery is mostly left for Pupkin. What Jerry Lewis brings is true-blue Hollywood pedigree and celebrity.
Meanwhile, Rupert has his own private delusions. For example a lunch with Jerry Langford where the old guard is positively begging him to take over the show for 6 weeks. This is the scenario he plays out in his head.
He also shows up at the bar presided over by a pretty girl — Rita (Diahnne Abbott), who he knew from school — and they wind up going out to dinner together (probably). Because at first, we question whether this is an illusion as well. Does it matter?
Because Rupert is enveloped in a world of hero-worship, although he takes it a step further. He wants to get to the top of the mountain with his heroes — to be one of them — with the same kind of praise and adulation. He’ll be the new king of comedy.
And yet we get a sense of how ludicrous this is. He is a man who’s done of up his living room with cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli and Jerry Langford (Lewis) to look like his own personal talk show. In the day before mobile phones, he clings to a payphone like a security blanket hoping to get a callback. Jerry’s going to call him back. He just knows it.
It functions as an extension, or a further perfection, of Taxi Driver‘s melding of fantasy and reality. What sets it apart is De Niro’s truly unprecedented performance; it feels more off-kilter and oaffish than we’re accustomed to seeing from him. He’s an alienated outsider, yes, but also a shmuck.
The scenes between Jerry and Rupert somehow are the richest for me because they remain at the heart and soul of his fantasy — his desire to be well-liked and accepted as a comedian — this want to actually break bread and be buddies with his hero. Haven’t we all been there? But for Rupert, it is a legitimate obsession.
There’s an imaginary marriage sequence presided over by his old high school teacher with the wedding march supplied by none other than Victor Borge. In another sequence, he gets thrown out of Jerry’s office after the umpteenth time only to show up at Jerry’s house with his girl in tow.
How did we get from one moment to the other? In the brain of Rupert Pumpkin, it’s not difficult to extrapolate. As this prolonged agony gets strung along, it becomes more and more uncomfortable and cringe-worthy with each passing minute. The servants let them in. They make themselves at home. Only for Jerry to return from the golf coursed miffed.
Because it becomes more and more apparent how unsubstantiated any relationship between Jerry and Rupert actually is. For the actors, it is par excellence with De Niro and Lewis riffing off each other for minutes on end — keeping this grating sense of conflict going.
It’s already been alluded to that The King of Comedy is about this kind of idolizing and super fandom, but it also examines what happens when fellow lunatics clash or worse yet join forces. In this picture, Rupert has Masha (Sandra Bernhardt). He makes every effort to differentiate between the two of them, but who else would hatch a nefarious scheme to kidnap Jerry Langford?
Of course, that’s what they do. There he is duct-taped in his chair — and they really do a job on him — he’s practically mummified, stuck to the seat of his chair. It’s the first phase in Rupert’s plan to get his face in front of the biggest audience possible. Forget about guest host Tony Randall. He’s going to be the new talk of the town, at least for an evening. If not for his middling standup, then certainly for kidnapping one of America’s most beloved public figures.
The key to The King of Comedy is how Scorsese seems to understand what it is to be the TV generation and to be raised on the medium of the small screen. Although he is considered one of the great cinematic directors of our times, he also understands the world a film like this engenders. Case and point is Rupert Pupkin’s climactic monologue.
He cuts away before we ever see it live. Instead, it is shown later from a bar over the fuzzy frequency of a television screen as it was meant to be. In this augmented reality of canned laughter and studio audiences, people can become like family, and they are household names. But there’s also something phony and uncomfortable about it if it’s done poorly.
Because it’s become more and more apparent there are people out there who are not looking to accumulate a currency of trust with their audience. They only want their 15 minutes of fame.
I’m not sure if The King of Comedy always works, but it does leave a lasting impression with its meandering road of awkwardness where Pubkin is a man who seems delusional, shrewd, and overwhelmingly conventional all at the same time. The final punchline is how he gets his wish and becomes a celebrity. Notoriety might be a better word for it, but in our modern landscape aren’t they really one and the same?