By: Anthony Miglieri
Travis Bickle. Jake LaMotta. Max Cady. Such are only a few of the characters that have been made iconic by the legendary cinematic tandem of actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. Despite the undeniable vitality and singularity of these widely recognized character concoctions, there are still creations of De Niro and Scorsese that have yet to gain comparable recognition. The strongest of these neglected personas is that of Rupert Pupkin, main character of The King of Comedy.
The film opens with the chaotic yet not unfamiliar sight of an enormous crowd of fans awaiting the arrival of a star, talk show host Jerry Langford (portrayed by real-life host Jerry Lewis.) Among the restless fans is aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro. As Jerry struggles to carve his way through the wall of outstretched arms and autograph-craving exclamations, Rupert muscles away fellow standers and helps Jerry, as well as himself, into the awaiting limousine. Rupert then launches into an eager pitch for his idol, asking to be on the show. “Call my office,” replies Langford, all but tearing himself from Rupert’s presence. It is obviously a rebuff, but Rupert persists in his pursuit of Langford, who he believes will be his key to success and fame.
During the rest of the film, we observe Rupert as his obsessive tendencies hinder his ability to communicate with others. He celebrates his “success” in meeting Langford by visiting a waitress who he admits to have voted Most Beautiful in high school decades earlier. “You haven’t changed,” she replies in dismay after Rupert explains that he will be famous and professes his love for her. De Niro is uncanny as he portrays Rupert in his fruitless endeavors; he manages to create a character as disturbing as he is earnest.
Although The King of Comedy is certainly not the laugh riot as its title might suggest, the sheer oddness of Rupert’s spirited interactions and De Niro’s impeccable timing create a very funny movie with a calculated bite to the humor. Some of the funniest and simultaneously saddest scenes in the movie involve various daydreams of Rupert’s. These daydreams, including one in which Jerry begs Rupert to take over his show (“I can’t even take over my life for six weeks!” Rupert cries), reveal how delusional Rupert is, especially when it’s revealed that he’s actually interacting with cardboard cutouts in his mother’s basement.
Aside from De Niro’s expected greatness, exceptional performances are also delivered by Sandra Bernhard as manic Langford fan Masha and by Jerry Lewis as Langford. Essentially riffing on his own persona, Lewis brilliantly portrays a man who, when not on stage, simply craves his own privacy. Lewis allows the paranoia of stardom to seep into the audience as he watches security cameras and constantly looks over his shoulder as he strolls through New York. This paranoia is essential to the film’s highlighting of the public’s unhealthy obsession with celebrities. In a world of inexplicably famous web stars and Kardashians, this message is sadly more relevant than ever.
When the film was released in 1983, audiences were still buzzed from the potent fumes of two other De Niro/Scorsese masterpieces, 1976’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, of 1980. Taking into account the timeframe of The King of Comedy’s release, it is understandable how it was generally lost in the shuffle of greatness that the duo were churning out at the time. The King of Comedy is certainly is more subdued picture, with Scorsese stripping down his usual visual flamboyancy. Also interesting is how The King of Comedy represents a departure of sorts in Scorsese’s filmography in terms of how it deals with the emotions of its psychologically fraught protagonist. Whereas killer taximan Travis Bickle and sadistic boxer Jake LaMotta are maelstroms of physical, volcanic human feeling, Rupert Pupkin is simply a loser whose mental instability is dangerously bottled. This initial insularity is proven all the more vital and unnerving when the bottle is uncorked.