The King of Comedy –

My two regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of Martin Scorsese; of course there are good things, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas all excel in their own way. But anyone who has attended Kundun, Hugo or Silence will know that there can be a deeply boring and moralizing aspect to his work, something those who revel in the bloodshed seem happy to ignore in favor of his lyrics. more sacred and profane. His 1982 flop, King of Comedy, is hard to categorize; while it doesn’t have Scorsese’s gushing blood or gangster mode, it’s also an ugly, dark, nihilistic film, which, as star Robert De Niro noted, said something people didn’t want to hear.

Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a comic genius in his own right, but as a comedian in the making, he’s going nowhere. Pupkin idolizes Jerry Langdon, a household name Scorsese considered Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin for, as well as Johnny Carson, before casting Jerry Lewis in a rare straight performance. Pupkin desperately stalks Langton, trying to get him to play a tape of his stand-up routine and eventually falls for Langton’s security. Undeterred, Pupkin and his partner-in-crime (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Langton and make it a condition of his release that Pupkin have his own prime-time slot to try out his material.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the recent Joker movie carried over themes, characters, scenes, and dialogue from that film; the job of being a tragic loner hasn’t changed much in four decades. Joker even copies the device of jumping from real-life situations to Pupkin’s imagination, a trick that gets us inside his head, but only long enough to realize how wacky he is. Lewis rigorously downplays the significance, but De Niro’s Pupkin seems too broadly drawn to exist in the real world; while it’s a strong statement that when we finally hear his routine, it’s boring and frozen beyond belief, it’s also an anti-climax that hampers the film’s dramatic tension.

Not all comedies are revolutionary; Pupkin’s brand is vanilla, and his failure to gain traction within the New York comedy club and television scene is unsurprising. But King of Comedy has its moments, including an uncomfortable confrontation between Bernhard and Lewis, taped to a chair and subjected to the unwanted attentions of a disturbed fan. The King of Comedy hates celebrities, fans, comedians, corporate life and just about anything in front of Scorsese’s ruthless lens. Despite the absence of physical violence, it captures the despair of the degrading, prostrate position into which our society forces the aspirational. Funnily enough, when the same storyline was overlaid with extreme violence in Joker, the audience let it go, but that’s showbiz. An eclectic supporting cast somehow includes both Victor Borge and The Clash.

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