Sunday 23 June 2024

The King of Comedy (1983)


The King of Comedy

“The King of Comedy” is Martin Scorsese’s take on infatuation with fame and the famous. It is also Scorsese’s attempt at making a comedy... sort of.

One night after the filming of his talk show, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, being sort of himself) is accosted by a horde of fans as he tries to get to his car. When he finally gets to his car, there is a screaming woman inside. One of the fans steps in to help get the woman out of the car and Jerry into it, only to join a surprised Jerry in the car. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), as the fan is called, wants to introduce himself to Jerry Langford as a way into the business and only by promising to set something up does Jerry get away.

We then learn that Rupert lives in his own version of reality. In this world he is already bestie with Jerry, he is a star comedian and universally adored. We also learn that he and the woman in the car, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) are acquaintances and work together to get close to Jerry. Rupert because he wants to be like Jerry and Masha because she sees herself in love with Jerry. The sad truth is that both are in desperate need of help.

Rupert shows up frequently at Jerry’s office where he is politely rebuffed. Rupert, being the fool he is, does not take a hint, even when he is eventually kicked out by security. As his second option, Rupert is convinced that he would be welcome if he shows up at Jerry’s country home. Rupert wants to impress the waitress Rita (Diahnne Abbott) so he brings her along. While she is quick enough to catch that they are not welcome, Rupert has a very hard time accepting it.

Third option is the hard way. Masha and Jerry kidnap Jerry to force a show appearance of Rupert and give Masha a date with the helpless Jerry. While this goes about as stupid as you can imagine, Rupert actually gets his 15 minutes of fame.

This was a very hard movie for me to get through. I think it took me two weeks of pausing and procrastinating to get to the end. I am not good at movies about people ruining their own lives with their stupidity or poor decisions, especially when it is due to mental illness. Rupert has so convinced himself that he is God’s gift to comedy and that Jerry is his best friend that he completely disconnects from reality. We see these delusions in scenes taking place in his mind and it is really really sad and disturbing. He is not just some clown but a victim in its own right. I felt so sorry for Rita, being dragged along to a famous person’s home only to find out she has been duped and is unwanted. I would simply have left, on my own, on foot if need be. The embarrassment is unbearable.

The focus of the movie of course is the infatuation with fame and the famous and that it messes up people. That unfamous, ordinary people think that the grass on the other side is so green and that these famous people are so special. It is a winner and loser game and if you see yourself as a winner, you are one. Except, Masha and Rupert are not ordinary people but mental patients, diagnosed or not, and so the comedy is so bitter that it is not funny at all.

The end of the movie tells us that any sort of fame makes you famous, even idiocy, because the public is stupid too. Acerbic? Sure, but probably not far from reality.

I have had a hard time with Scorsese’s movies in the past and I know this is a trend that will continue. Getting us to like and take interest in unlikable and stupid people is an uphill battle and for me is often a lost one. It is interesting to see a superstar like Robert De Niro cast as someone who delusionally wants to be a superstar, but this is also as far as I follow “The King of Comedy”. As a comedy, it is too bitter to be fun (for me at least) and as a human-interest story it is way too hard on its leads. Pointing to a disturbing relationship between the idea of fame and actual fame may be its main credit, but that does not cut it for me.

While reviewers love this movie (7.8 on IMDB) it totally tanked at the box office. I see why on both parts.


  1. I get what you mean about your conclusion. This definitely doesn't feel like a film that is going to do anything for the general film viewer, but is definitely going to appeal to a specific subset of film fans. It's a cult film in that sense.

    There's a direct line from the talk show scenes of this film to Joker from a few years ago, and De Niro is involved in both.

    1. You are absolutely right about the connection with the Joker. I had missed that one, but it is true.

  2. I like King of Comedy but never have thought of it as a comedy! For sure it contains all unlikable characters.

    1. Maybe accessing The King of Comedy as a comedy is an error to begin with, but if Scorcese is not out to make fun of his characters, then I am not certain what he is trying to do. It feels like satire to me, but with a mean streak.