Black comedy requires three elements to be successful: Plots we shouldn’t find funny, characters we shouldn’t like, and jokes we really shouldn’t laugh at. The best black comedies have made us laugh at nuclear war (Dr. Strangelove), spend time with Irish hitmen (In Bruges), and told jokes about terrorists blowing up the Honey Monster (Four Lions). Dark comedies are at their best when they shock and appall while amusing us with sharp scripts and fascinating characters.
Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is perhaps the perfect black comedy. Telling the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a man so desperate for fame he kidnaps a popular talk show host (Jerry Lewis), The King of Comedy is so dark, many people find it too disturbing to be a comedy. A thorough character study, the film gives a fascinating insight into the mind of celebrity stalkers and obsessive fans. While The King of Comedy is often tense and creepy, comedy runs all the way through it.
De Niro’s performance is a masterpiece of cringe comedy. So determined to succeed he ignores all social conventions, Pupkin is the type of man who’ll happily stand by a payphone all day in case a producer calls him back, or spend entire evenings imagining celebrity conversations down in his Mother’s basement. Half the film’s humor comes from how little Pupkin cares about looking psychotic; the other half comes from his co-star, legendary comedian Jerry Lewis. Playing straight man to De Niro’s unhinged comedian, Lewis is brilliantly deadpan whether dealing with aggressive fans or reporting his own kidnapping.
The King of Comedy is a bold film that gave us one of the most darkly funny characters of all time. Making cringe comedy gold out of stalking and kidnapping, some will find The King of Comedy too bleak to be funny; others will find endless laughs in the dark tale of Rupert Pupkin.
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