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The King of Comedy - 1982

The King of Comedy - 1982

Director(s): Martin Scorsese  

Writer(s): Paul D. Zimmerman

Cinematography by: Fred Schuler    

Editor(s): Thelma Schoonmaker

Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack and Tony Randall

Synopsis: Aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin attempts to achieve success in show business by stalking his idol, a late night talk-show host who craves his own privacy (IMDB).


By 1982, Martin Scorsese had already made three critically successful movies - Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull - with his go to actor at the time, Robert De Niro. With Raging Bull coming out in 1980 and being as close to a perfect movie one can humanly get; the duo was challenged with coming up with a worthy follow-up. Scorsese did what he does best, tackling a completely different type of obsession and a completely different type of social outcast. The King of Comedy centers around social outsider Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) and how he creates a parasocial relationship with his comedic idol. 


The study of parasocial relationships has been around since the 1950s, ever sense mass media revolutionized how we as a culture consume entertainment and interact with media figures. It can go further back than the 1950s, with sport teams and political views, but television gave mass audiences a unique window into the lives of their favorites actors, musicians and media figure. One of the main reasons I chose to revisit this movie is because it deep-dives into this phenomenon of ow a person can create an entire relationship with someone they don’t know outside of their TV show or movies. This is something far more relevant today given the rise of social media, how people create relationships with the people they follow and feel validated with a like or a re-tweet. Watching this movie plot unfold is just a small glimpse of the fear many “celebs” face anytime they interact with overly eager fans.

Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, is such a familiar person that it’s scary. We all know that overly nice person who says almost everything through a smile, yet there is always something off about him them that you can’t put your finger on it. Rupert forces his way into the life of Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, and like a parasite doesn’t let go until the host forces him out. The entire world sees him for what he is, but Rupert has created a persona or a vision of himself in his head and nobody in the world will stop him from realizing his destiny. The scenes where De Niro shines are his one-sided conversations. He sits in his room alone creating conversations wherein his idol is his friend and at times inferior to the stardom he has accomplished in his head. De Niro delivers a full fleshed out character that makes you detach him from the actor and makes you feel weirded out by the realistic portrayal of a person completely detached from reality.


Quick note: while Rupert’s obsession is rooted in fame and fortune, writer Paul D. Zimmerman also ran a parallel side plot with Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard. Her obsession with Jerry is based on love and lust as she KNOWS they are meant to be together.

Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker handle those scenes masterfully. They transition back and forth from the perfect world Rupert is imagining to his sad reality siting alone in his room yelling at his mom. It goes seamlessly and it only adds to the madness of our protagonist since he can jump back and forth without really skipping a beat. He lives in both worlds, one where he is famous and friends with his idol and the one where he doesn’t have a dime and nobody knows who he is. Cinematographer Fred Schuler also gave his imaginary conversations a dreamlike quality that contrasts perfectly his dark and lonely reality. Scorsese’s use of the set design and the score also helps elevate these scenes. 

With the word comedy being in the title, one would expect writer Paul D. Zimmerman to deliver on some jokes. And he does so long as you have a very dark sense of humor. Most of the laughter comes at the situation that we find ourselves in – following this truly insane person in his delusions of grandeur. I found myself laughing way too loud during moments that tip toed the line between over the top and creepy. Zimmerman found the perfect balance in telling the audience, yes laugh at this person, but also be afraid of what his capable of doing. All of this elevated by the incredible performance of De Niro.


Quick note: the ending is up for debate as to did it happened the way it was showcased or was it all in the head of Rupert. Some of the reactions of the people around him lead me to lean more towards the latter, but in this world, anything is possible.

The King of Comedy is, believe it or not, a hidden gem in Scorsese’s resume. When you have been working for as long as he has there are movies that are just going to fall by the wayside, especially when you have movies like Raging Bull and Goodfellas under your belt and you come out with modern classics like The Wolf of Wall Street. De Niro’s performance is incredible, camera work by Scorsese is flawless and the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker is impeccable, creating a world that is too real in 2018. Great movie to watch given the social media driven world we live in. Scorsese is why I love movies.

The King of Comedy is currently streaming of Amazon Prime. Come on, best friend – go watch it.

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