Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The King of Comedy
THE KING OF COMEDY (Martin Scorsese, 1982)
Ray Charles sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” over the opening credits of THE KING OF COMEDY, but in the context of this dark comedy the singer’s promise to love the listener as no one ever has sounds more like a threat. It certainly is later in the film when Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who helps aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) kidnap a late night talk show host, warbles it to the celebrity held captive in her townhouse. Passion can just as easily be indicative of derangement as deep affection.
34-year-old Rupert is among the crowd of autograph hounds and gawkers that hangs outside the the exit of the late night network talk show Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) hosts. Rupert isn’t so much interested in obtaining a signature as he is in bending the ear of his idol and convincing him to book the unknown talent on the show. One night he helps to push the adoring mob away from Jerry and slips into his car along with him. Jerry is gracious enough to humor his intense fan’s wish to talk with him, which leads Rupert to believe he’s so very close to becoming his industry equal.
Emboldened by his brief chat with Jerry, Rupert goes about arranging the remainder of what he needs for his rapid rise to the top. He asks out Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the high school crush he could never ask out until now, and envisions her becoming his bride in a nationally televised ceremony. He hounds the patient receptionist and production staff at Jerry’s show thinking that his showcase slot is a formality that hasn’t yet been finalized. When Rupert’s fantasies face resistance by reality, he enlists fellow obsessive Masha to abduct Jerry and then uses knowledge of the host’s whereabouts as leverage to get time to perform his act on the show.
Director Martin Scorsese depicts Rupert’s delusions so that there is often initial confusion in scenes between what is happening in the material world and what takes place in his mind. His three-piece suits and heavily rehearsed behavior--he’s never not “on”--obscure the pathology behind his striving. Rupert is so convinced of his imminent success that in his basement he has cardboard cutouts of famous folks and a studio audience with whom he can regale with his jokes and anecdotes on the talk show circuit. He’s even practiced his autograph. There’s not a question in his mind of if he’ll make it but when.
At this point in his career De Niro could be seen as a dangerous screen presence, but the intimidation emanating from him as Rupert is psychological than physical. He nails the way someone who is overly familiar and misinterprets social niceties can be unnerving. De Niro plays Rupert as though he’s living in an everlasting lucid dream in which he can tailor actual circumstances according to the vivid reality in his head. Eventually Rupert takes more aggressive actions to put imagination and existence in agreement, but before then he still has an unsettling quality because he’s oblivious to accepted standards of conduct.
The barriers to fame are lower now than they were when THE KING OF COMEDY was made, but Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay anticipates how notoriety alone is often spun into prominence in the media and public gazes. Rupert’s statement that it’s “better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime” sounds like a guiding aphorism for those willing to demean themselves for a brief time in the spotlight than to suffer obscurity, the worst of fates. THE KING OF COMEDY is an uncomfortably funny film not because Rupert’s desire to make everyone stand up and notice him is so foreign but because it’s recognizable, even to those would never go to his lengths to achieve everyone’s attention.