Perhaps one of the most talked about aspects of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) is the fact that no one seems to talk about it. This – along with its poor commercial performance – may come as a result of being overshadowed by Scorsese’s preceding masterpiece Raging Bull or how ahead of its time and disturbingly real the subject matter may have been. As it stands, the film is a darkly funny and often frightening depiction of celebrity obsession and the crippling depths of denial. The film hasn’t aged a day thematically in its exploration of the lines between fame and infamy or fandom and obsession.
The plot follows aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) attempting to worm his way into the entertainment industry and make a name for himself. With the help of unstable fanatic Masha (Sandra Bernhard), he stages an opportunity to appeal to the popular talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis essentially playing himself). After misreading a polite dismissal, Rupert won’t take no for an answer in showing up at Langford’s office and ambushing him at home. He doesn’t seem to grasp that his behavior is obnoxious and intrusive despite pushing Langford to the limit. After nothing but rejection he and Masha hatch a plan to kidnap Langford with the intention of Rupert gaining the airtime to become a household name, whilst Masha can attempt to develop her one-sided relationship with their hostage into a mutual one.
Robert De Niro expertly plays the struggling stand-up who operates with an intense tenacity, a wild imagination and a total lack of social awareness that makes him less of the “character” you’d pay money to see and more of the “character” you would avoid sitting next to on the bus. He genuinely believes he is God’s gift to comedy whilst he resides in his mother’s basement interviewing cardboard cutouts for his imaginary talk show and performing his routine to no one. As he further intrudes upon the life of his celebrity idol, Rupert’s desperation and deranged sense of entitlement knows no limits, often even blurring fantasy and reality. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s transitions from Rupert’s fantasies of getting the appreciation and success he thinks he deserves to his reality consisting of rejection and bickering with his mother are initially completely seamless. As these visualizations of rubbing shoulders with celebrities and gaining recognition become more vivid and surreal, they emphasize how unhinged and detached from reality this man really is.
The cringe-worthy instances of his inability to appropriately read the room regularly transcend social awkwardness and border on the behavior of a psychopath. And then there’s Masha, who cranks the insanity up to eleven when she has Langford all to herself and taped to a chair. Her unhealthy fixation with Langford and her denial regarding the relationship between them is so overwhelming that it is at times both hilarious and terrifying. Bernhard plays her with an intense sense of desperation that almost evokes sympathy if she weren’t so unsettlingly over-the-top and self-appeasing.
Paul D. Zimmerman’s satirical script addresses the darkest aspects of fame and public fixation on celebrity. A scene allegedly informed by Jerry Lewis’s real-life experiences of walking down the street debatably borders on horror as fans and well-wishers turn quickly into viciously entitled stalkers. One particular moment that is jarringly disturbing involves an elderly fan suddenly exclaiming that Langford deserves cancer after he signs her magazine but politely declines the added request of talking to her nephew on a pay phone. One can’t help but note a similarity to the toxic fandom on the internet in this day and age.
Though the film is generally a comedy at the expense of Rupert and Masha’s detachment from reality and media culture in general, there is something fundamentally chilling about the truths it speaks regarding fame and the ways in which it depicts obsessive entitlement. Ultimately at the time of its release, this mixture of darkness and satire meant that it struggled to find its audience. Jerry Lewis’s near-biographical portrayal of Langford, the cameos from real contemporary talk show guests and the attention to detail and authenticity within the fictional Jerry Langford Show was perhaps too close to home for the masses.
It’s fascinating how relevant the film still is in an age of social media and reality TV where the illusion of fame, importance, and connections with celebrities is stronger than ever.