The King of Comedy, a 1983 film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as a deranged autograph collector and wannabe comedian, is not a comedy. Although De Niro and Scorsese have collaborated on several highly disturbing and violent movies such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, none of them come close to The King of Comedy in terms of sheer psychological terror. Prophetic in the sense that it predated social media by two decades, the film blurs the line between celebrity and fandom, between fantasy and reality in a way that makes it more unsettling and relevant than all of Scorsese’s other films.
In a modern environment where every nobody on the planet with an Internet connection can strive to achieve Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame, the film’s biggest irony is that Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro)—the loser who lives in his mother’s basement and fantasizes that fame will bring him glory, happiness, and the girl he always wanted in high school—doesn’t realize that his idol, late-night talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), is miserable precisely because he’s always being stalked, groped, and threatened by fame-hungry losers such as Rupert Pupkin.
Jerry reveals this in a pivotal scene where Rupert invades Jerry’s weekend country retreat and forces Jerry to reveal that he’s been far too nice and accommodating of Rupert’s relentless attempts to piggyback on Jerry’s fame:
Rupert Pupkin: I’m gonna work 50 times harder, and I’m gonna be 50 times more famous than you.
Jerry Langford: Then you’re gonna have idiots like you plaguing your life!
The very next shot shows Rupert with a gun, ready to kidnap Jerry and force him to allow him on his show at the risk of being murdered.
As director Martin Scorsese puts it regarding Rupert’s ruthless and pathetic quest for validation through fame:
…he becomes successful without being good. He’s good enough. That’s the most unsettling part, that he’s good enough….There are so many Ruperts around us. There’s so much dilution, and democratizing of what quality is, for better or for worse….We knew we were commenting on the culture at that time, but not thinking that it would blow up into what it is now.
The King of Comedy is the “last really great film about culture,” says comedian Sandra Bernhard, who plays an equally deranged accomplice of Rupert’s who helps him kidnap Jerry Langford at gunpoint:
Look at this world we’re living in. It’s a shit show! Whatever we presented in The King of Comedy went so far beyond our wildest expectations that [the movie] seems almost homespun.
The first scene shows Jerry Langford—the king of late-night talk shows whose character was modeled after Johnny Carson—being violently mobbed by fans as he exits the rear of his building. Rupert Pupkin temporarily shields Langford from the howling throngs while also worming his way into Jerry’s limo. As they ride off together, Pupkin—whose name is comically mispronounced as “Pumpkin,” “Pupnik,” “Pipkin,” and other variants throughout the film—haltingly explains to Jerry that he’s a comedian and has been waiting for this moment his whole life.
In an obvious attempt to rid himself of this persistent nobody, Jerry tells Rupert to call his office and they’ll give a listen to his comedy routine. Jerry will soon learn that this was a huge mistake.
Since he can’t even get a gig at local comedy clubs, Rupert works on his routine in his mother’s basement:
Throughout the film, Rupert’s real-life losses and loneliness are punctuated by fantasy sequences where he and Jerry are showbiz equals.
Rupert decides to storm Jerry’s corporate offices demanding a face-to-face meeting with Jerry. At first he is delicately handled by Jerry’s ice-cold assistant Cathy Long, former Charlie’s Angels star Shelley Hack. She asks him to bring them a tape of his comedy routine, which he dutifully does. In Rupert’s fantasy life, Jerry loves the tape:
But in reality, Miss Long tells Rupert that his jokes aren’t strong enough and that he needs to work on his material, preferably live in local comedy clubs. This doesn’t sit well with Rupert, who is so relentlessly annoying that security guards wind up tossing him out of the building twice.
It is at this point that Rupert decides to escalate matters by escorting his high-school crush—played by Dihanne Abbott, who at the time was Robert De Niro’s real-life wife—out to Jerry’s weekend retreat, where Jerry finally decides to strip away all niceties and tell Rupert exactly what he thinks of him.
After Rupert’s humiliation, he and mentally disturbed rich society girl Masha—played by Sandra Bernhard in only her second film role—kidnap Jerry, duct-tape him to a chair in Masha’s plush apartment, and hold him for ransom while demanding that The Jerry Langford Show feature Rupert’s comedy act as that evening’s opening feature:
Rupert performs his act in front of the entire nation, and despite it being objectively awful, the audience can’t seem to tell the difference and laughs along with what is superficially comedic but is at core the lament of a bitterly lonely and rejected soul:
Meanwhile, Masha, with the object of her dreams taped to a chair and at her mercy, attempts to seduce Jerry:
Jerry convinces Masha to cut him free from the chair so they can consummate their relationship. Once free, he smacks Masha to the ground with one fierce slap and escapes into the streets of New York, where he walks by a storefront where a row of TVs show Rupert performing his act on Jerry’s show.
The ending shows that Rupert was arrested for kidnapping but only served two years of a six-year sentence. It says that Rupert is released from prison to pen a best-selling book and to embark on a lucrative career as a comedian:
What’s unclear is whether this is reality or all in Rupert’s head. Perhaps he’s still in prison, fantasizing. Or perhaps the culture is so sick that it rewards talentless mediocrities who have enough chutzpah to kidnap their way into superstardom.
The Screenplay Was Inspired By The Story Of A Fanatical Johnny Carson Fan
The screenplay for The King of Comedy was written in the early 1970s by film critic Paul D. Zimmerman, who was inspired by a talk-show segment about fanatical autograph hounds as well as an Esquire magazine profile of a deranged fan who stalked Johnny Carson.
Robert De Niro bought the script in 1974 and presented it to Scorsese, who initially balked:
I didn’t get it. The script is hilarious. But the movie was just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show.
The 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring De Niro and a preteen Jodie Foster, was partially based on the story of Arthur Bremer, a demented loner who stalked and shot presidential candidate George Wallace.
In 1980, a crazed Beatles fan named Mark David Chapman shot and killed his idol John Lennon in Manhattan. Within months, a Jodie Foster fan named John Hinckley, partially inspired by Foster’s role in Taxi Driver, shot and almost killed President Ronald Reagan.
Although several other high-profile directors such as Milos Forman, Bob Fosse, and Michael Cimino had originally been considered to direct the film, the series of high-profile murders and attempted murders of famous people by twisted loners convinced Scorsese it was finally time to direct Zimmerman’s script. He battled exhaustion and pneumonia during the months-long filming process and completed The King of Comedy near the end of 1981.
However, audience test previews were so bad that the film company decided to wait until 1983 to release the movie. It was a gigantic flop—with a budget of $19 million, it only took in $2.5 million at the box office, making it Scorsese’s biggest financial failure next to The Last Temptation of Christ.
The TV Star And His Stalkers
Although Johnny Carson was originally approached to play the role of the beleaguered talk-show host, he refused. Rumor had it that he feared playing this role would get him killed in real life. Rat Pack stars such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were also considered before filmmakers finally decided on Jerry Lewis.
At the time of the filming, Lewis had been dealing with a real-life stalker who’d been terrorizing him and his family for years. Lewis is brilliant in the film as he convincingly plays a put-upon superstar who loathes his fans but realizes he has to accommodate them to some degree.
Lewis also directed the following scene, which is reportedly an almost word-for-word recreation of a situation Lewis said he endured with a female fan in Las Vegas:
Lewis and Sandra Bernhard reportedly loathed one another during the entire filming. Regarding the scene where Jerry convinces Masha to cut the tape and set him free, he recalls:
I went to Marty and said, ‘Jerry Langford has such angst and anger, I think when he gets out of the tape he should punch her right in the mouth.’ He said, ‘You want to do that?’ I said, ‘More than you’ll ever know.’ I hit her a shot, and thank god I missed or she’d be dead. She’s the reason they invented birth control!
De Niro and Scorsese claim they developed Rupert’s awkward leisure-suit look after espying a mannequin with a cheesy mustache in a Manhattan clothing store.
During the pivotal scene where Jerry finally tells Rupert how he feels about him, De Niro the method actor reportedly peppered Lewis with several anti-Semitic remarks designed to drive him into a rage. According to Lewis, it worked: “I forgot the cameras were there… I was going for Bobby’s throat.”
De Niro says he prepped for the role by interviewing some of his own obsessive fans. Scorsese recalls De Niro’s encounter with one fan in particular:
The guy was waiting for him with his wife, a shy suburban woman who was rather embarrassed by the situation. He wanted to take him to dinner at their house, a two-hour drive from New York. After he had persuaded him to stay in Manhattan, [De Niro] asked him, ‘Why are you stalking me? What do you want?’ He replied, ‘To have dinner with you, have a drink, chat. My mom asked me to say hi.’
Despite her inexperience, young Sandra Bernhard was permitted to improvise most of her lines, including the mind-meltingly cringeworthy scene where she wines and dines her kidnapped idol. Three decades after the film’s release, she suggests that she and Jerry Lewis still hate one another:
Marty, Bobby, it seems like yesterday we took over NYC in the Summer of ’81. The summer you discovered me was the summer my life changed. It fell apart, and look where I am now, nowhere. Thanks a lot, you sons of bitches. Remember when Jerry called me ‘Fish Lips.” That was a great moment on set. He brought me a handwritten apology letter. I coveted that letter, but by the end of the day it was missing, I figured he probably stole it back so no one could ever accuse him of apologizing to anybody.
Despite its initial failure, The King of Comedy is now more relevant than ever. Social media enables a whole new generation of would-be Rupert Pupkins and Mashas to invade the personal space of their celebrity idols without even having to live in the same town as them. The line between celebrity and obscurity, between fantasy and reality, has never been blurrier than it is now.