Despite being a box-office failure, The King of Comedy is now considered Martin Scorsese's unsung masterpiece. James Oliver examines the director’s bizarre satirical venture with his long-term collaborator, Robert De Niro.

The lust to attain celebrity is one of the great epidemics of our age, so it's easy to forget that it is not a new phenomenon. People have been abandoning both their dignity and good sense in pursuit of fame long before the dawn of reality TV or the Internet.

For proof, you need only look at The King of Comedy, directed by Martin Scorsese. It was made in 1983, before the rise of celeb culture, but offers an acute diagnosis of the condition and much else besides. Well ahead of its time, it didn't find much favour upon original release. Some viewers, though, loved it and even called it a masterpiece: it is increasingly hard to disagree.

Our titular king is Rupert Pupkin played, as was customary in Scorsese films of this era, by Robert De Niro. Rupert is an autograph hunter and aspirant stand-up, looking for a booking on Jerry Langford's top rated talk show, a gig that will bring him the recognition he thinks he deserves. But Jerry ain't biting. Adopting less conventional methods, Rupert kidnaps Jerry (played, very well, by Jerry Lewis) and threatens consequences unless he's given a spot.

The film was written (by Paul D Zimmerman) in the late 1960s. It wasn't made, though, until the early 1980s and that time lag is important. Back when Zimmerman first put pen to paper, folks like Rupert Pupkin were pathetic jokes. They started to be taken rather more seriously after one of them murdered John Lennon.

The King of Comedy

Perhaps even more pertinent was the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life in 1981: his would-be assassin claimed (partial) inspiration from Scorsese's film Taxi Driver. It's not hard to see why the director took a script originally intended as a wry satire and turned it into something much darker.

Despite its jolly title, The King of Comedy should properly be seen as a horror movie, with Rupert as the bogeyman. He might be the most frightening character in any Scorsese picture, more so than Max Cady of Cape Fear, Tommy (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas and even Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, to which The King of Comedy acts as a Day-Glo companion piece. All those guys are obvious psychos while Rupert initially seems like a figure of fun. It's only when you see him in close-up that you realise how dangerous he is.

This was not an obvious role for De Niro, then at the very height of his powers, to take. After all, his last collaboration with Scorsese had been the super-intense Raging Bull and here he was playing an apparent goofball. But it is, I think, the best performance he's ever given.

He dials back the controlled angst that characterises so much of his work—the steely eyed glare, the clenched jaw—for something looser and more manic. Below the affability, though, there is just a hint of menace (a stare held just a fraction too long; a smile that doesn't quite reach the eyes) that reveals something more.

Robert De Niro

One of the most frightening things about Rupert is his tenuous grasp of reality. Throughout the film, Scorsese drops in fantasy sequences—Rupert's dreams of his celebrity life—but the division between the imagined and the real is sometimes uncomfortably vague.

There's a brilliant sequence midway through the picture where Rupert (and his glamorous date) drop in on his ole' pal Jerry. By this time, we're accustomed to Rupert's little ways and his flights of fancy and this, at first, seems like just another fantasy: we are slowly disabused of that. A scene that starts out funny quickly becomes uncomfortable, then escalates to near-unbearable.

It is not a spoiler to know that the film ends with Rupert triumphant: he delivers his monologue and achieves his ambitions. This might, of course, be one last fantasy: either way it is an especially disturbing conclusion.

That final monologue draws on Rupert's upbringing. Although it's played for laughs, we might wonder how accurate his stories of alcoholic parents and physical abuse are: is he describing the events that formed him? And what does that say about the desperate desire to become famous by any means necessary that we're told so many people have?

 

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Read our interview with Robert De Niro about his latest film, The Intern

 

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