|The King of Comedy|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Martin Scorsese|
|Produced by||Arnon Milchan|
|Written by||Paul D. Zimmerman|
|Starring||Robert De Niro
|Editing by||Thelma Schoonmaker|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Release dates||February 18, 1983|
|Running time||109 minutes|
The King of Comedy is a 1983 American black comedy film starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis, and directed by Martin Scorsese. The subject of the movie is celebrity worship and the American media culture. It was released on February 18, 1983 in the United States by 20th Century Fox.
Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), a stage-door autograph hound, is an aspiring stand-up comedian whose ambition far exceeds his talent. After meeting Jerry Langford (Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, Rupert believes his "big break" has finally come. He attempts to get a place 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 where he and Langford are colleagues and friends. He even takes a date, Rita, to Langford's home, uninvited, trying to impress her.
When the straight approach does not work, Rupert hatches a kidnapping plot with the help of Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a stalker who is also 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, 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 escapes.
Rupert's stand-up routine is well received. He closes by confessing to the audience that he kidnapped Jerry Langford in order to break into show business. The studio audience laughs, thinking that it is a 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. It is noteworthy that the curtain backdrop in this scene resembles prison bars.
After Raging Bull was completed, Scorsese was keen to do a pet project of his, The Last Temptation of Christ, and wanted De Niro to play Jesus Christ. De Niro was not interested and preferred their next collaboration to be a comedy. He had purchased the rights of a script by a film critic Paul D. Zimmermann. Scorsese pondered whether he could face shooting another film, particularly with a looming strike by the Writers Guild of America. Producer Arnon Milchan knew he could do the project away from Hollywood interference by filming entirely on location in New York and deliver it on time with the involvement of a smaller film company. 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.
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 that before the making of the film 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 also stated that Lewis directed the actress playing the old lady in order to get the timing right.
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.
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 passed away, is on the soundtrack album but not in the movie itself.
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 Lewis made as part of his 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. A number of scenes in the film—Rupert and Jerry in the restaurant, Jerry meeting Rupert after having listened to his tape and calling him a genius, Rupert getting married "live" on Jerry's show—exist solely in Rupert's imagination, and Bordwell suggested that some viewers would think the final sequence is another fantasy.
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".
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 93% of 40 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."
Not all critics gave the film positive reviews, however; 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.
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