At a time when the concepts of celebrity and fandom were objects of study by culture scholars, auteur Martin Scorsese had adapted these themes and crafted them into what remains today a brilliant, yet underrated cinematic work, and moreover, a worthy commentary of American culture – 1983’s The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard. The black comedy, written by Paul D.Zimmerman, was a stellar addition to the filmography of the master director,who had also helmed films which studied the nuances and complexities of the human psyche, like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Scorsese paints the picture of the life of Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comic struggling to make it to the big leagues. He idolizes TV icon, Jerry Langford, whose success Rupert Pupkin wants to emulate. He is so influenced by the star that Rupert goes to the length of sneaking into Langford’s car breaking through a barrier of huge security and like-minded fans; but, ironically, not before helping the bodyguards throw out another lady fan who barges into the car to embrace Langford. In the car, Rupert gets into a lengthy conversation with Langford about granting him a slot on the star’s show, which Rupert believes could be the launchpad for his career as a stand-up comedian. Jerry’s assurances to Rupert to feature him on the show, despite being meant to pacify him, is, however, gold to Rupert. The opening minutes of the film deftly works in sketching the characters of both the fan and the star. After the encounter, Rupert also fantasizes professional yet friendly encounters with Jerry, where they share laughs, concerns and banter, signifying that the fan has already established the duo as colleagues and friends. He also professes his newfound “camaraderie” with a fellow stalker, Masha, played brilliantly by Sandra Bernhard, whose motive is, however, different to that of Rupert’s.
De Niro executes this complex character with such elan, that one cannot help but, at times, side with our protagonist; even as we realize that what he does isn’t the right way to do things. The character of Rupert Pupkin is wonderfully portrayed by Robert De Niro, what with the character’s convoluted mental pathology and occasional bouts of delusion. He conducts an imaginary talk show in the basement of his house, he behaves as if Jerry Langford is his best bud, and emanates a certain aura that he, indeed, is the star he imagines himself to be. This trait of the character is highly reflective of the psyche of a star-obsessed individual, a trend or a phenomenon that is not just limited to within the precincts of Hollywood, but expands to other cultures where media, like cinema and television, have had a similar impact on the layman’s psyche.
The King of Comedy is a study of toxic fandom, the kind where your admiration to a star (a label imposed by the culture industry) becomes the trigger for committing acts that, in fact, lack any sense and morale. Scorsese produced this film at a time when fanfare among Americans had manifested into all forms of paranoia. The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by James Hinckley Jr. in 1981, two years before the release of The King of Comedy,was interestingly done by the perpetrator to impress the then 19-year old actress Jodie Foster, who rose to fame in 1976’s classic Taxi Driver, directed by Scorsese himself.
At the time of release, The King of Comedy, albeit being reviewed positively at the time, turned out to be a massive box office flop. However, years later, this Scorsese movie becomes a must watch, for cinephiles and fans of the auteur alike, as an underappreciated classic, a study of the human mind, and an insight into toxic celebrity worship rooted in a media-influenced society. Also, one needs to watch this film to witness the legend De Niro at his finest and, also, most compassionate.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.