The King of ComedyOne of Martin Scorsese’s more uncharacteristic films is his 1982 follow-up to “Raging Bull.” Shunned by many on its release, “The King of Comedy” has gained in reputation and following of the years to attain certain cult status among many of the director’s fans though some would still debate on its merit. Their criticism isn’t entirely unfounded either, though perhaps they have been misled by the film’s light-hearted title. It is much less a comedy than a satire on celebrity culture and a rather disconcerting look at fandom and obsession connected with it. Its protagonist is in fact a psychopath and a creep, albeit a rather likeable one, which only adds to the film’s unsettling nature, something that will nest just outside most viewers’ comfort-zone. Despite that, “The King of Comedy” is a hidden gem  and essential viewing for aspiring connoisseurs of Scorsese’s oeuvre.

Aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro – who else?) has but one goal in life – to get a stand-up show of his own. To get his big break he obsessively pursues his idol Jerry Langford (real-life comedian Jerry Lewis). In doing so he actively interferes with Langford’s private life and completely misinterprets the other’s attempts to rid himself of the clamouring fan. Getting increasingly desperate after his demo-tape is rejected, Pupkin teams up with fellow stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard) to conceive a dastardly scheme that will get him not only access to Langford but also a way to perform his comedy-routine on the show. It’s an extremely well-constructed plot that sees De Niro turn from bumbling everyman with big dreams to cool psychopathic monster, while remaining light throughout. Pupkin’s frequent fantasies of fame and imagined conversations with Langford add a twist of the surreal, right down to the very conclusion which, it could be argued is also a figment of his fertile imagination. Some of his obsessions tend toward the fetishistic but are also tragically comic and Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay is perfectly nuanced for the viewer to pick up on these details. Sadly, a sub-plot involving Diahnne Abbott as the girl whom Pupkin loves is frustratingly underdeveloped and this is the film’s only major downfall.

In terms of look and style, many of Martin Scorsese’s usual trademarks are absent – indeed there is no one element that would point this out as a film of his and yet the director has a firm hold on the picture. The faux-futuristic production design, similar in style to what Peter Weir adopted for his “The Truman Show,” effectively add to the strange fantasy world the protagonist inhabits. Like fame itself, the setting is somewhere between imagination and reality. Similarly the allusions to celebrity culture with all its blessings and vices, pros and cons, have only grown in meaning and relevance since the film’s release and is in all probability timeless in nature. De Niro meanwhile is impeccable as ever and although this will not be remembered as one of his great roles, it is clear that he is very much at home in the comedy genre, something he would not explore again until “Midnight Run” six years later. A well-measured and funny (sometimes cringingly so) performance.

The King of Comedy OST“The King of Comedy” contains no original score. A song compilation was released by Warner Bros. Records to coincide with the film’s release. This features music by “The Pretenders,” Ray Charles and Van Morrison. Their appearance in the film is unremarkable and on album they amount to a decent compilation if nothing more. Collectors of this kind of music will probably already have the songs scattered across several other releases and will find nothing new on the soundtrack.

Nowhere near Scorsese’s best (let’s face it: that bar is pretty high up) but “The King of Comedy” remains an intriguing picture leaving one to wonder what might have happened if the director and his favourite actor had devoted their entire careers to comedy. Very enjoyable if you don’t mind being pinched in the behind about a good reason not to become famous.



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