The King of Comedy (1982)


Directed by Martin Scorsese

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is the The King of Comedy.  He’s also a lunatic.  Pupkin idolizes Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a successful comedian and late night host.  All Pupkin wants is to appear on the show to do his act, but he only wants that so he can be famous and wealthy.  It’s curious that he chose comedy, because he could just as easily be an investment banker or an actor.

Pupkin doesn’t seem to have chosen comedy because it will be easy.  Though he doesn’t seem to understand how serious someone like Langford takes his profession, he does seem aware that it requires a lot of work.  Hell, when we see Rupert (Auto-correct won’t let me reliably type “Pupkin”) on national television by the end of the film, he’s not that bad.  Sure his routine has a few clunkers or just overly familiar material, but he does all right.  He falls into his stage persona with ease, and he’s a pretty good actor, partially because he’s a bit psychotic and seems able to say the right things and push the right buttons.

Throughout the story, Rupert gets in Jerry’s way, but there are never any consequences for his actions, even as he goes further and further, trespassing into the television network’s offices or even Jerry’s vacation home.  All that happens is that he gets kicked out and told to stay away.  But Rupert won’t stay away.  Fed up after learning that Jerry is willfully ignoring him (he seemed to believe the receptionist when she said “Jerry’s not in right now”), he comes up with a plan to kidnap Jerry, with the help of his equally deranged friend, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), whose attraction to Jerry isn’t about fame but simply because she loves him.

Using Jerry as ransom, and thus proving that it was never really about Jerry Langford, Rupert is able to get himself on camera, as the first guest on The Jerry Langford Show, guest hosted by Tony Randall.

This film is about a crazy person who ultimately does crazy things.  He never snaps and kills anyone or really even harms anyone, but the threat is always there.  Even before the kidnapping takes place, you know Rupert is going to do something.  So the story was relatively predictable until the very end.  The logline of the film mentions that Rupert kidnaps Jerry, but that doesn’t even happen until over halfway into the movie.

Up until that point, Rupert is happy to play the game as he sees it.  This mostly includes waiting and being falsely polite.  His smiles, meant to disarm, instead make the receptionist contact the security guards.  He’s unaware of the appearance he gives off, thinking he can con his way into show business.  It’s hard to tell who Rupert really is.  He constantly wears a suit (similar to one Jerry wears on air), and his mustache and hair combination just feel like something he spent a lot of time engineering.

When Rupert stops trying to play “nice” and kidnaps Jerry, he still talks and acts the same.  His whole thing is an act, but that’s because there’s probably no one underneath.  I guess that’s what it means to be a psychopath.

When Rupert finally gets out onstage, his persona really is just the same character he’s played throughout the film, whether it’s with Jerry or with a girl he tries to court.  At the end of his routine, Rupert admits to “tying up” Jerry and using his as a way to get on camera.  The audience laughs, of course, because the whole idea is ridiculous and must just be another joke.  Rupert insists it’s true, but he’s still smiling and gesturing, well in character.  This moment makes it seem as if the plan to kidnap Jerry was in place all along, like he knew it would make a good closer.

Everything Rupert does is in service of getting screen time, and it’s easy for us to think that he’s a terrible comedian, but it’s quite the opposite.  If he mentioned kidnapping Jerry because he knew it would get a laugh, then that’s pretty smart (*considering the situation; obviously everything up until that point was insane).

Rupert seems pretty lucky, actually.  His plan works incredibly well, and even Jerry says he’s “smart” for organizing such a crime.  Rupert goes to prison, but he only serves 2+ years of a much longer sentence, and then he’s back in public, publishing a book.  He made it, and his luck continues.

There’s even a shot of Jerry noticing that Rupert made it (paying off a conversation they had earlier about the possibility/unlikelihood of Rupert ‘making it’), and it’s clear that Jerry is severely concerned.  If you look at the film from Rupert’s perspective, as if we were rooting for him the entire time, then it’s a wildly fun ride, and the shot of Jerry’s disappointment is an exclamation point to close the film.  Many films have moments like that where our hero wins, and the villain has a moment in which he or she recognizes their own failure.

But in The King of Comedy, we never root for Rupert.  Not even at the beginning.  There are plenty of films with characters that grow away from the audience, making us rethink our relationship to them, but Rupert is always disturbing.  It was hard to watch his first conversation with Jerry in which he keeps calling him back for one more detail.  I hate Rupert.  He was irritating to watch, and his sense of self-importance was more than off-putting.  So it’s incredibly disappointing that he made it in the end.  When he makes the audience laugh, we understand why they’re laughing, but at least for me, it was discouraging.  I wanted him to bomb, or I wanted the audience to recognize how shitty he was.

When Rupert goes to the bar to show the bartender he likes the broadcast of his routine, she even seems impressed.  This is, of course, because she doesn’t know what had to happen for him to get onstage.

So what to make of this?  The whole film is very darkly comic, implying that there is an entire underworld of celebrity-obsessed people, like Rupert and Masha.  They hound after celebrity autographs as if each signature is a horcrux, containing part of that person’s soul.  They don’t just want to sniff that person, they want to keep part of him or her.

There’s a scene in which Jerry goes for a stroll, but he is quickly and often interrupted by people who recognize him.  One woman urges him to say hi to her cousin, but he politely declines, and she immediately wishes cancer upon him.  There is vitriol in fame-seekers, whether they’re famous or not.

If anything is being cursed in this film, it’s the idea of fame.  Fame is a kind of prison for Jerry, as he constantly looks over his shoulder and ultimately his fears are confirmed when he’s kidnapped.  And fame traps people like Masha and Rupert.  They have tunnel vision, staring at this one thing, like it will save them.  In Rupert’s case, it does save him.

Though he is undeniably crazy, there is nothing to suggest that Rupert loses anything by the end of the story.  Maybe Scorsese could have added a scene in which Rupert gets his own crazy stalker, but that doesn’t happen.  Because of how unequivocally positive the ending is for Rupert, it seems as though it’s all some sort of fever dream.

After all, we do see the conversations that Rupert imagines himself having throughout the story.  The first time we see this, it’s an intimate dinner conversation between Jerry and Rupert.  Halfway through the scene, we see that Rupert is having the conversation with himself, in his room.  Later on we see more of these imagined moments, sometimes from Rupert’s perspective, as if it’s really happening and other times from outside his perspective, so we can see how manufactured and unreal these moments are.

In one instance, Rupert marries Rita, the attractive bartender, live on television (only in his head).  It’s easy to think there is no plot movement in these scenes, instead just further illustration of Rupert’s lunacy, but the next time we see Rita, she’s on the train with Rupert to Jerry’s vacation home.  There has been some development in their relationship, though certainly not marriage, something has happened.  What it seems to mean is that there is story movement in these imagined scenes.  It means we’re not seeing everything clearly, only often from Rupert’s perspective.

That means that at the end, it might be and probably all is imagined.  Rupert hasn’t been released from prison early, and he doesn’t have a book deal.  It’s important, then, that at the end we only see Rupert’s image on the cover of books and on television.  We don’t truly see him in any setting that would confirm his success.  It’s more like he died, and his image was transposed onto the television.  There has always been some separation between real Rupert and famous Rupert.  Whether it’s in his imagined scenarios or the scene in which he does finally make it onstage.  We see him walk out onstage, introduce himself and then we cut away to after he’s finished his routine.  We only see his actual routine once it reaches the airwaves, and we watch it through the lens of the television set in all its grainy glory.

There is a clear separation between Rupert on tv and Rupert the psychopath.  So again, the end of the film shows a man who no longer exists outside of his fame.  He never did, really.  He’s like a character who walked out of a movie and into real life, full of missing character traits that weren’t expressly stated in the program from which he emerged.  Think of Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, a character who literally emerges from a movie screen.

Is the whole film, in that case, a statement on fame and what you lose when you become famous?  Jerry doesn’t have any meaningful relationships of which we see, and neither does Rupert.  In fact, in Jerry’s summer home, he only has pictures of himself when he was younger.  Fame kills you, one might say.  People kill to become famous, and people are killed by being famous.

So going back, I want to figure out why we never like Rupert.  Why wasn’t he shown to be likable?  Maybe he could have been a hardworking comedian who finally snapped, undone by the stress and financial instability of his career choice?  We could see how fame breaks him, but instead Rupert is never a fully-developed person.  He is a fully-developed character, just not a person.  He was never going to survive if he wasn’t famous, so that’s why he went as far as he dead.  He can’t exist in normal life.  So maybe, just maybe, this film says that people who become famous only make it because they couldn’t live without it.

Or maybe Rupert is just a crazy person and reflective of nothing broader than himself.

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