Movie Project #5: The King of Comedy [1982]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

The King of Comedy [1982]

The King of Comedy [1982]
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard
Running Time: 109 minutes

(This post contains possible spoilers.)

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

So says Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in his fame-making monologue near the end of The King of Comedy. In many ways, Pupkin is right. Many people would likely trade a life of unimportance for one night of fame and possible fortune. Rupert’s problem, however, is that he goes about his night as a “king” in about the most ridiculous way imaginable.

The 34-year-old Pupkin is a fame-seeking, wannabe comedian who worships the late night talk shows. His dream is to be the next Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the successful host of one such show. Rupert is determined to get his “big break” into showbiz, but he is completely devoid of a portfolio or any sort of real experience. He stays at home, seemingly in his mother’s basement, studies the talk shows and acts as if he is already a famous comedian.

The King of Comedy [1982]

Rather than start off doing small gigs while working his way up like a normal comedian, Pupkin decides he’s going to talk to Langford directly. While waiting outside of the TV studio, he manages to finagle his way into Jerry’s car and even get a ride from him. It’s an incredibly awkward encounter — Rupert just doesn’t know how to end a conversation — but Jerry is surprisingly tolerant. Their encounter ends with the talk show host vaguely suggesting he would check out Pupkin’s tape at a later point.

That’s all the incentive Rupert needs to keep bugging Jerry. He shows up at the TV studio, refusing to leave the waiting room until he gets to talk to Jerry. He shows up over and over again, as annoying as a mosquito that just won’t buzz off. Eventually, when Jerry’s secretary turns him down after finally listening to his recording, Rupert gets the hint. He’s not wanted there, so he’s going to have to take matters into his own hands. Together with the help of his friend, the equally deranged Masha (Sandra Bernhard, playing another celebrity-obsessed fan), the two of them kidnap Jerry and hold him hostage until Rupert gets to be on the talk show.

The King of Comedy [1982]

As Pupkin continues to grow more and more desperate to get his big break, the film often verges into uncomfortable territory. Pupkin is just such a gauche individual (perfectly played by De Niro, by the way), and some of his interactions are just unbearable. There were times where I wished I could just reach in and pull him away before he could embarrass himself even more. The problem there, however, is that he simply has no shame. He is determined to the point of exasperation. Perhaps most amazing is that Rupert’s obnoxious behavior makes it easy to empathize with Jerry Langford, even though the host is pretty much a smug asshole.

It’s clear that Rupert is delusional and suffers from some type of mental illness (in addition to his extravagant narcissism). He is constantly drifting in and out of daydreams; some are obvious fantasies, whereas others could go either way. If taken in its literal form, The King of Comedy appears to be well ahead of its time. The film shows the depths that someone will go to get famous, and it offers an equally important glimpse at how our society is apt to reward criminal behavior. In the end, Pupkin got the fame he wanted, much like Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. And we, as a society, are eagerly there to soak it all up.


16 thoughts on “Movie Project #5: The King of Comedy [1982]

  1. jjames36 says:

    Good review. This one is high on my watch list, as well, if Netflix would ever decide the DVD doesn’t have a Long Wait.

    I hope I like it as much as you do. That you end by comparing it to Wolf of Wall Street tells me I just might.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Sorry for holding onto the Netflix DVD for so long. 😉

      It’s especially interesting watching The King of Comedy now, after having seen The Wolf of Wall Street. Those two films have quite a bit in common, even with their 30 year difference.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    So dark, yet, so damn funny. Shame Scorsese hasn’t really tackled a film like this since, but at least we know he’s capable of handling comedy, if need be. Good review Eric.

  3. Chris says:

    Glad you enjoyed this one Eric! Robert de Niro was so good King of Comedy, given the right material, he is a great actor.
    Indeed, he does embarrass himself, difficult to know how to reaction to Rupert Pupkin, should I laugh at him, or feel sorry for him. Maybe a bit of both. One thing’s for sure, I couldn’t take my eyes off his madcap behavior. If only he could channel that determination into a real job, that’s what I hoped for him 🙂

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Haha, I know exactly what you mean. I loved Rupert’s determination, but you’re right, if he put that effort into doing things legitimately, who knows what would have happened. I was surprised his standup bit wasn’t as awful as I imagined. With some more polish, maybe he could have made it on the late night shows anyway.

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