Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), a stage-door autograph hound, is an aspiring stand-up comedian unsuccessfully trying to launch his career. After meeting Jerry Langford (Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, Rupert believes his "big break" has finally come. He attempts to book a spot on the show but is continually rebuffed by Langford's staff and finally by Langford himself. Along the way, Rupert indulges in elaborate and obsessive fantasies in which he and Langford are colleagues and friends. Hoping to impress, Rupert invites a date, Rita, to accompany him when he decides to show up uninvited at Langford's country home.
When the straight approach does not work, Rupert hatches a kidnapping plot with the help of Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a stalker similarly obsessed with Langford. As ransom, Rupert demands that he be given the opening spot on that evening's Jerry Langford Show (guest hosted by Tony Randall), and that the show be broadcast in normal fashion. The network brass, lawyers, and the FBI agree to his demands, with the understanding that Langford will be released once the show airs. Between the taping of the show and the broadcast, Masha has her "dream date" with Langford, who is duct-taped to a chair in her parents' Manhattan townhouse. Jerry convinces her to untie him and he manages to escape.
Rupert's stand-up routine is well received. In his act, he describes his troubled life (from growing up in a poor neighborhood to getting beat on in his adolescence) while simultaneously laughing at his circumstances . Rupert closes by confessing to the studio audience that he kidnapped Jerry Langford in order to break into show business. The audience laughs, believing it to be part of his act. Rupert responds by saying, "Tomorrow you'll know I wasn't kidding and you'll all think I'm crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime."
The movie closes with a news report of Rupert's release from prison, set to a montage of storefronts stocking his "long awaited" autobiography, King For a Night. The report informs that Rupert still considers Jerry Langford his mentor and friend and that he and his agent are currently weighing several "attractive offers". The final scene shows Rupert taking the stage for an apparent TV special with a live audience and an announcer enthusiastically introducing and praising him, leaving the viewer to decide whether if it is reality or Rupert's fantasy.
In the biography/overview of his work, Scorsese on Scorsese, the director had high praise for Jerry Lewis, stating that during their first conversation before shooting, Lewis was extremely professional and assured him before shooting that there would be no ego clashes or difficulties. Scorsese said he felt Lewis' performance in the film was vastly underrated and deserved more acclaim.
After such a strong critical appreciation for the way in which Scorsese had shot Raging Bull, the director felt that The King of Comedy needed more of a raw cinematic style, one of which would take its cues from early silent cinema, using more static camera shots, and less dramatic close-ups. Scorsese has noted that Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film, Life of an American Fireman, had greatly influenced The King of Comedy's visual style.
According to an interview with Lewis in the February 7, 1983 edition of People magazine, he claimed that Scorsese and De Niro employed method acting tricks, including making a slew of anti-Semitic epithets during the filming in order to "pump up Lewis's anger." Lewis described making the film as a pleasurable experience and noted that he got along well with both Scorsese and De Niro. Lewis said he was invited to collaborate on certain aspects of the script dealing with celebrity life. He suggested an ending in which Rupert Pupkin kills Jerry, but was turned down. As a result, Lewis thought that the film, while good, did not have a "finish." In an interview for the DVD, Scorsese stated that Jerry Lewis suggested that the brief scene where Jerry Langford is accosted by an old lady for autographs, who screams, "You should only get cancer," when Lewis politely rebuffs her, was based on a real-life incident that happened to Lewis. Scorsese said Lewis directed the actress playing the old lady to get the timing right.
Scorsese first became aware of Paul D. Zimmerman's script after it was brought to him by Robert De Niro in 1974, but declined the project citing that he felt no personal connection with it.Michael Cimino was attached to direct, however Cimino's involvement with the script fell through, when he left the project to instead direct Heaven's Gate. Prompted by the alienation he felt from his growing celebrity status, and De Niro’s claims that the film could be made "real fast", and that it would be a "New York movie" Scorsese’s interest in the project was rekindled.
Scorsese's first choice for talk show host Jerry Langford was Johnny Carson. Carson refused the role, claiming "you know that one take is enough for me." The entire Rat Pack was also considered—specifically Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—before a decision was made to select Martin's old partner, Jerry Lewis.
Arnon Milchan suggested shooting began a month earlier than scheduled in order to avoid possible work stoppage from the DGA strike. Furthermore, Scorsese was not in good health. The film was shot over a twenty-week period, with Scorsese shooting from 4pm to 7pm everyday.
Scorsese had suffered from poor health both before and during the film's production. He had previously worked on three films close together and not long after, found himself hospitalised due to exhaustion and pneumonia. He had not recovered when shooting began. The intensive filming schedule meant Scorsese could spend the remainder of his time recuperating.
Robbie Robertson produced the music for the film's soundtrack and contributed his first original work after leaving The Band entitled "Between Trains". This song, a tribute to a member of the production staff who had suddenly died, is on the soundtrack album but not in the movie itself. The King of Comedy soundtrack is a mix of popular music and thematic orchestral scoring by composer Bob James. The soundtrack includes songs from artist such as B.B. King, Van Morrison and Ray Charles. This kind of hybridization of pop and scored music would later be used in Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed.
The King of Comedy was released on DVD on December 12, 2002 (Region 1) and 19 April 2004 (Region 2).
A digital restoration of the movie was presented on April 27, 2013 as the closing film of De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival. This latest version was produced from the film’s original camera negatives and features a restored soundtrack. While the restored film was scheduled to be released onto Blu-ray on October 29, 2013, the 30th Anniversary home media release was ultimately delayed for a release date of March 25, 2014.
Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of 43 critics gave the film positive reviews. Its critical consensus states: "Largely misunderstood upon its release, The King of Comedy today looks eerily prescient, and features a fine performance by Robert De Niro as a strangely sympathetic psychopath." Although the film was well received by critics, it bombed at the box office. De Niro said that the film "...maybe wasn't so well received because it gave off an aura of something that people didn't want to look at or know."
Timeout called it "Creepiest movie of the year in every sense, and one of the best".Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars, writing, "The King of Comedy is one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I've ever seen. It's hard to believe Scorsese made it..." He also wrote, "Scorsese doesn't want laughs in this movie, and he also doesn't want release. The whole movie is about the inability of the characters to get any kind of a positive response to their bids for recognition." He concluded the film, "is not, you may already have guessed, a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective."Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader gave the film a favorable review, calling the film, "clearly an extension of Taxi Driver" and the "uncenteredness of the film is irritating, though it's irritating in an ambitious, risk-taking way".Joyce Millman of Salon called it, "Martin Scorsese's second least popular movie, after The Last Temptation of Christ. Which is a shame, because it's Scorsese's second greatest film, after Taxi Driver. However, not all critics gave the film positive reviews. Adam Smith of Empire Magazine called it "Neither funny enough to be an effective black comedy nor scary enough to capitalise on its thriller/horror elements".
David Ehrenstein, author of The Scorsese Picture noted the mixed response of the film in his 1983 review. He stated that The King of Comedy "cuts too close to the bone for either large-scale mass audience approval or unanimous mainstream critical acclaim". He noted how far apart the film stood to other films made in the early years of Reagan's America which the film presented a very critical portrayal of (although the script was written well before Reagan's election, and shooting began less than five months after Reagan took office). "At a time when the film world piles on simple-minded sentiment in thick gooey gobs, a picture like The King of Comedy appears a frontal assault. The triumph of the 'little guy' is revealed to be nothing more than lumpen neo-Fascist blood lust."
Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was one of the critics who disliked the film, describing the character of Rupert Pupkin as "Jake LaMotta without fists". She went on to write that "De Niro in disguise denies his characters a soul. De Niro's 'bravura' acting in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York collapsed into 'anti-acting' after he started turning himself into repugnant flesh eggies of soulless characters.....Pupkin is a nothing." Scorsese says that "people were confused with King of Comedy and saw Bob as some sort of mannequin". Scorsese has called De Niro's role as Rupert Pupkin his favorite of all their collaborations.
The confrontation scene at Jerry's house between Pupkin and Langford was parodied on Saturday Night Live soon after the film's release, when Lewis hosted the show. The sketch, featuring Tim Kazurinsky and Mary Gross, features Lewis visiting a studio in Paris, France and meeting a voice actor who performs the French-language dubs for Lewis' characters in all his movies. However, Jerry is dismayed when he learns that the actor reads it all in the "nine-year-old boy" style that was part of Lewis' comedy routines during his days with Dean Martin. The actor tries to kill himself out of shame when Lewis rebukes him, but Lewis stops it.
Film scholar David Bordwell, writing in Film Viewer's Guide, mentioned the (un)reality of the ending as a topic for debate, as there is no definitive answer as to whether the ending is reality or fantasy. By the end of the film the line between fantasy and reality is blurred for the audience as well as the character. Scorsese doesn't offer a clear answer but forces the audience to make their own minds up from how they individually read the film.
In his commentary on The Criterion Collection DVD of Black Narcissus, Scorsese stated that Michael Powell's films influenced The King of Comedy in its conception of fantasy. Scorsese said that Powell always treated fantasy as no different than reality, and so made fantasy sequences as realistic as possible. Scorsese suggests that Rupert Pupkin's character fails to differentiate between his fantasies and reality in much the same way. Scorsese sought to achieve the same with the film so that, in his words, the "fantasy is more real than reality".
Rupert Pupkin has been compared to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: both characters have serious issues with reality testing, that is drawing the line between outer objective and inner subjective reality. In her review, entertainment columnist Marilyn Beck approved Johnny Carson's refusal to play in The King of Comedy, who was supposedly fearing the film could inspire psychopaths like John Hinckley, calling it even more dangerous than Taxi Driver because of its lack of blood and the fact that viewers could easily identify with De Niro.