The King of Comedy

In The King of Comedy, Director Martin Scorsese hits a satirical bulls-eye with this black comedy that explores the absurd lengths to which nebbish Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) will go to land a spot on the TV talk show of his idol, Jerry Langford (a wonderfully caustic Jerry Lewis). Pupkin believes that one appearance on Langford’s show will be his ticket to stardom, so he kidnaps his idol and sets into motion a chain of events you have to see to believe!  Start with good old American celebrity worship and obsession, add generous portions of stellar cast, and bring to a simmer with Martin Scorsese directing.  Of course, those ingredients still need a story, and this one is engaging, with an odd urgency all its own.  Robert DeNiro, in a unique performance, is Rupert Pupkin, a 30-something man living with his mother in New York City.  He has a pathological obsession with finding stardom as a stand-up comic.  He doesn’t work as a comedian, but lives his fantasy on a mock-up stage that he built in his bedroom, bantering away on the sofa next to a cardboard cut-out of the king of late night television, complete with cut-outs of stars, and a life size photo mural of a studio audience that covers one wall.  (Sienfeld’s friend Kramer did something similar in their 1990s TV series.)  Pupkin’s sometime side-kick is an autograph hound, with an equally tenuous grip on reality, is played by the one and only Sandra Bernhard.  Unlike Pupkin, she has no illusions about being a star — she’s simply obsessed by celebrity, and has a special fondness for Jerry Langford, the very much Johnny Carson-like super star of late night TV.  He’s portrayed by Jerry Lewis, in a superb performance as the consummate show-biz professional, a jaded man who bears little resemblance off-camera to the on-camera persona that America loves.  It’s unfortunate for Jerry Langford that Rupert Pupkin and friend live nearby, and that he’s the object of their obsession, and a presumed meal ticket to the big time that Rupert will risk everything in pursuit of.  This film is set in the time before cable TV and internet, back when a new comedian could become a star after an appearance on the Johnny Carson Tonight show on late night TV.  You can’t easily assign this movie to a particular genre, but there are scenes that stray into blackest comedy.  The characters range from over-the-top to rock-steady, and all of them are memorable and played to the hilt.  The movie is an overlooked Scorsese masterpiece, a brilliant satire about show business and fame.  This is a brutally honest Scorsese film about this star-struck “comedian” totally out of touch with reality.  Rarely has a movie been so hilarious and so unsettling at the same time.  Nothing matches the brilliance of King of Comedy.  Here is a list of what the film contains:  quite possibly DeNiro’s greatest performance ever, Sandra Bernhard’s original brand of neurotic psychosis, and a truthful and insightful performance by Jerry Lewis.  And last, a realistic New York city that brims with life in a way that no one has ever captured quite like Scorsese does here, with such an authentic look and feel.  The theme of this movie, obsession for fame and for famous people, is so prescient and ahead of it’s time that if it were released now it might still seem too satirical and dark.  This movie thrives on uncomfortable situations, none more so than the scene where DeNiro and his lady friend drop in at Jerry’s house.  This is such a unique film, and one of the most underrated & under-appreciated ones at that.  Check it out, if you’re up for a quirky, undiscovered gem.  (This is a superb DVD.  It is presented in widescreen, while many movies from the 80s have been rushed onto DVD in “full screen” pan-and-scan mode. That would be enough to make it exceptional, but it also has a wonderfully enlightening Making-Of featurette, which is not one of those dull HBO Making Of specials where actors pat themselves on the back while spewing plot and character details to promote the movie, but one that contains real insights.)  Satire 1983 PG 105 minutes.

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