The 70s had confirmed Martin Scorsese as one of the rising giants of new Hollywood with classics such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and The Last Waltz cementing that reputation. A new decade delivered the amazing Raging Bull, but then things got a little weird as the man known for harsh, dark and disturbing dramatic pictures took a step into the world of comedy.
First up was the The King of Comedy in 1983, which saw Scorsese reunited with his ultimate star Robert De Niro. Scorsese had, in fact, been pushing to get his “Christ” project finally up and running, but De Niro was far more interested in The King of Comedy. Thankfully De Niro got his way and things got rolling on this strange but wonderful dark comedy.
Set in the world of stand-up comics, the film follows the excruciating attempts of wannabe comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) to make it big. The big star of the day is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who dominates late-night chat on American TV. Langford is based on the legendary Johnny Carson – the part was offered to the man himself but he decided to pass. Scorsese then turned to Lewis and he more than delivers, matching the magnificent De Niro step for step.
Having saved Langford from Masha, his most ardent fan (played with a disturbing level of demonic mania by Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin asks if he can drop off a demo tape for Jerry to assess. Naturally, this leads the somewhat delusional Pupkin to fantasize not only an entire relationship with Langford, but also that he is ultimately promoted to host the show.
After being given the brush off by Langford, Pupkin turns to plan B. This basically involves kidnap and bribery to get himself on the air. Before his arrest he gets the opportunity to show his former high school crush his appearance on the Jerry Langford show. Having made it, sort of, the film closes with an ambiguous note that recalls Scorsese and De Niro’s Taxi Driver.
Having originally found this film around 15 years ago when it first came out on VHS in the UK, I can very happily declare that it gets better with age. I have no doubt that the film plays like a very dark comedy version of Taxi Driver with Rupert replacing Travis, but being just as scary in his own way. The sequences when Rupert records his demo tapes in the basement are so very painful to watch, especially when his mother keeps interrupting his drive for stardom. For modern audiences Rupert may be somewhat reminiscent of characters like David Brent from The Office, who simply move from one painfully awkward moment to another. Rupert’s perseverance and conviction that his delusions are real never fails to get me cringing with constant pain.
The supporting cast members are perfect, from the spectacular Lewis to the clearly mentally deranged Bernhard. The King of Comedy is a very small, perfectly formed film that never tries to exceed its grasp, ensuring its ability to keep you engaged. Scorsese’s transition into comedy is seamless but he has since talked about the influence of Lewis in his scenes. Lewis simply possessed perfect comic timing and worked surprisingly well with the young Scorsese and the new superstar De Niro. Lewis had a reputation for being demanding and difficult but here, as in the later Funny Bones, he has a sparkle and lightness that is infectious to this day. The sequence when he is being held hostage by Masha is comedy gold of epic proportions.
Today Martin Scorsese is arguably one of the biggest names in Hollywood and is set to release his first kids’ movie this Christmas, and it’s also his first foray into 3D. Cinema lovers now know him as the man who made violent gangster epics and won his Oscar for the cop thriller The Departed. I strongly doubt that many people would talk about the two comedies he directed in the 1980s, but they remain two of his most fascinating films.
The King of Comedy remains a gem of a film and really should be high on to the ‘to-see’ list of anyone that hasn’t already experienced it. Scorsese simply takes the sense of dread from some of his previous films and replaces it with a strong sense of the uncomfortable. Robert De Niro once again astounds and you simply cannot take your eyes off him, if only for his astounding outfits. I don’t want to bandy about the word masterpiece but this is pretty damn close in my opinion. The King of Comedy is simply one of the greatest films Scorsese ever made.