The King of Comedy

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1982)


Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro in one of his most extraordinary performances) is a child of the television age. With his family mysteriously absent, and his mother only a hectoring voice off-screen, Rupert seems to have grown up relating only to the one-dimensional figures he so obsessively follows on the box – mistaking the shallow repartee of talk-show television for real communication.

In particular, Rupert worships the Johnny Carson-like Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, cast chillingly against type). But the modern cult of media celebrity contains as much murderous envy as admiration, and thus Rupert's greatest dream is to be – if only for one night – the new King of Comedy, which logically involves deposing Langford from the crown. And he will go to any lengths to fulfil this crazy dream. Adulation, in this psychotic fantasy-logic, equals abduction – or worse.

Don't let the title mislead you. Martin Scorsese's film – one of his masterpieces, and also one of the great films of the '80s – is dark and nerve-racking, as well as funny in a disturbing and perverse way. It is truly a bent comedy. Rupert is the quintessential schmuck, a nobody, humiliated at every turn by those in authority. Scorsese really makes us flinch as we experience every excruciating moment of his mounting humiliation.

His madness – which completely permeates the film – is a mind-boggling mixture of canniness, naïveté, media-cliché and animal impulse. His female counterpart, unforgettably incarnated by comedienne Sandra Bernhard, is equally lost in a hopeless, narcissistic haze of television dreams and ungrounded desires. As a woman, alas, her position in what theory calls the Symbolic is destined to be a little different, more sentimental, altogether less public, but even more dementedly hysterical than Rupert's.

Scorsese's film is relentless and hallucinatory, causing the viewer to doubt by the end what is reality and what is Rupert's wish-fulfilment projection – and (like all great movies) handing you no tool to definitively figure out the difference. And here's a final question to ponder and argue over: is Rupert's ultimate television monologue meant to be funny?

MORE Scorsese: The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, The Blues, Bringing Out the Dead, Cape Fear, Goodfellas, Kundun, Rolling Thunder Revue, Casino, The Irishman, After Hours, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ

© Adrian Martin September 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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