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King of Comedy, The (1983)


Well, ya gotta give 'em this much: cool poster.
Well, ya gotta give 'em this much: cool poster.


Genre: Comedy Drama

Starring: Robert De Niro (Raging Bull1900),  Jerry Lewis (The Nutty ProfessorArtists and Models)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese (Mean StreetsTaxi Driver)

Overview: A man chases his dream of being a nationally televised stand-up comic, no matter who stands in his way.

The King of Comedy is one of those Scorsese offerings that reminds me of his fallibility. He’s not a Cinema God every day of his life. Made on the heels of his two most famous films, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, The King of Comedy is a less famous, less important, lower-key offering than those more epic Goodfellas / The Departed titles. I think the reason The King of Comedy sits in the middle of the Scorsese oeuvre bell-curve is pretty simple: though the sum of its incredible parts should make it work, these several same ingredients just don’t have the wow factor of deep story and interesting characters.

The King of Comedy is the character study of an average guy who grows a seed of hope into a man-eating obsession. Robert De Niro plays the quirkily-named Rupert Pupkin, a man with dreams of being a stand-up comic - and by that I mean he’s never actually worked as one, but he has paid his dues at the autograph gauntlet behind the studios of the late night TV comedy talk show “The Jerry Langford Show”. Being infatuated with Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), Rupert manages to get a moment of Jerry’s time to share a conversation, to speak about his dreams of being on TV. Jerry tells Rupert to call his secretary so he can listen to his material. From this point, we explore Rupert’s passion as it ramps up to criminal proportions with the help of a truly ballistic madwoman / stalkerette, Masha (Sandra Bernhard).

 Those aforementioned criminal proportions
Those aforementioned criminal proportions

The very first thing I was reminded of as the credits began was how dated television comedy was - as a rule. Several ‘Special Appearance’ and ‘Guest Star’ credits had me doubting the timelessness The King of Comedy could hold. Such names as Haven’t-Heard-Of-You-Since-The-80s Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Never-Heard-Of-You-EVER Ed Herlihy. Tony Randall’s name at the end of a long list of Has-Beens and Never-Knowns left me with a touch of hope, but what I truly longed for was story over flashy faces. Billed as a Black Comedy I’ll safely say that The King of Comedy is not funny. Like any film with wackiness, there’s a laugh here and there, but slapping Black Comedy labels onto anything that is dark and remotely comic does a disservice to the film in question. With that caveat, let’s discuss the talent…


ok, ok, sometimes it's pretty.


De Niros Pupkin is a schmo with an awkward moustache, living in a small apartment decorated with cardboard cut-outs of famous people on a makeshift set, surrounded by wallpaper sporting laughing crowds. Rupert’s streak of subtext isn’t particularly deep, and is part of the reason he’s not as compelling in this role as in most other Scorsese characters. The young and paper-thin Sandra Bernhard plays Masha, a woman loosely in league with Rupert, but far more off balance. She's introduced foaming at the mouth, snarling from inside Jerry Langford’s limo. Jerry Langford’s character is without a doubt the best part of The King of Comedy. It’s Jerry Lewis in the best role I’ve seen him play; he’s an established, successful comedian who in his old age has become a privacy-hungering curmudgeon. Jerry plays him stern, serious, sullen. The parallel to th famous comedian’s own life is brilliantly played up, because it’s absolutely believable. Jerry plays Jerry with such profound contained pathos that he completely steals the show, and becomes the reason to watch.

But unfortunately, The King of Comedy doesn't feel like a Scorsese film all. It doesn't shine with that great music I’m used to hearing in the rest of his films. De Niro’s a staple, but his character doesn’t give him much room to explore – his drive is fairly singular in purpose. The King of Comedy is pleasant and enjoyable, but the only spectacular aspect is Jerry Langford, who we don’t see nearly enough of.

The King of Comedy won’t make you ask what’s wrong with the world, won’t make you ask why this sleeper hit isn’t more popular. No scene stands out as being truly memorable, no line is particularly strong, and no comedy is particularly crown-worthy.


Oh brain, will you ever go sane?
Oh brain, will you ever go sane?

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 72% (Prince of Chuckles)

I think that ultimately, The King Of Comedy suffers from the focus being on the wrong character. I’d much prefer seeing Jerry Langford unfold, with a large chapter in the form of stalker-grade TV hopeful Rupert Pupkin. Watching Jerry Lewis here made me realize how much I prefer him in dramatic roles than in his comedic ones; ironically, he could only play Jerry Langford so well only by having been a comedian his whole life.

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