#15 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
This is a pitch-black comedy about fame, celebrity, and the lack of communication in a world dominated by the illusions of mass media. It also feels like an alternate universe treatment of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver where, instead of getting a job with a taxi company he went to a comedy club and saw Jerry Langford’s premiere performance.
Rupert Pupkin (sounds a lot like bumpkin to me) is a celebrity and autograph hound who has a very low-level job as a courier (which he calls communications) and an obsession with Jerry Langford, a late-night television show host in the vein of Johnny Carson. Pupkin, who lives in his mother’s basement, also holds a fantasy of becoming a hugely successful comic like Langford. One night after taping his show, Langford gets mobbed on the short sidewalk to his car from the television studio in Manhattan and Pupkin sneaks into the car, convincing Langford to allow him a few minutes of his time because of a minor injury he sustained in the bedlam. Through his earnest interactions with Langford, Pupkin gets a mealy-mouthed promise of something for the future regarding Pupkin’s comedy act and a potential spot on the show. Being delusional, Pupkin takes this empty promise as an assurance that his future fame has been cemented.
In this world of mass communication, very little ends up communicated between people. Langford gives Pupkin hints that he has no interest in helping him, but Pupkin doesn’t hear it. Langford’s producer’s assistant outright tells Pupkin that he doesn’t have a chance yet to be on Langford’s show, but Pupkin refuses to believe or even really hear it. When Pupkin and the only person he could remotely call his friend, Masha, another autograph hound obsessed with Langford, have a disagreement about the truthfulness of Pupkin’s relationship to Langford, neither really listens to the other as they justify their positions. When Langford is walking the streets of New York from his apartment to his job, he likes the distance of people saying hello to him without him needing to actually get to know them. There’s a wonderful moment (apparently based on a real event from Jerry Lewis’ life) where he stops to sign an autograph of an older woman, but when he walks away without talking to her son on the payphone, she wishes for him to get cancer. Jerry loves the fake connection with his audience, but he really wants nothing to do with them individually, the relationship with his audience through the television is a mirage and he prefers his isolation. When Pupkin and Masha end up kidnapping Jerry, Masha is left alone with Jerry and tries to have an intimate dinner with him, implying a deep relationship with him based on nothing but her view of him through the television.
This idea is presented cinematically through Scorsese’s decision to film both reality and fantasy in the same, matter of fact manner. When the concept is introduced early, it’s done in an obvious way with Pupkin talking to himself in his mother’s basement intercut with the fantasy of him and Jerry having the same conversation in a swanky restaurant. It’s also held in the performances. In that same scene, de Niro plays Pupkin two completely different ways. In reality he’s earnest and overbearing. In the fantasy he’s cool and relaxed. As the movie goes on, more and more gets fantasized, but the technique of treating the two “realities” the same makes it harder and harder to tell the difference between the two until the very end.
After Pupkin has fallen prey to his fantasies completely through a visit to Jerry’s weekend home outside of town, going so far as to bring a girl he knew from high school who works in a local bar along. This is the most pointed moment of lack of communication when Jerry has to say repeatedly that he wants Pupkin gone before Pupkin deigns to say that he can take a hint. Rejected by his idol, he cracks the scheme with Masha to kidnap Jerry and use Jerry’s safety as leverage to get himself on to do the monologue on Jerry’s show. It’s here where we can’t be sure as an audience whether any of this is happening. Is everything from the moment Pupkin leaves Jerry’s summer home a fantasy? Is everything from his performance on a fantasy? Is it all real? These are interesting looking questions but they don’t really matter to the film’s central point.
The point is that blurring of reality brought on by mass media. The implied relationships that are all based on airwaves instead of real interactions create a sense of fantasy that are unmoored from reality. Pupkin represents an extreme example of that, of course, but it’s born from a real unhealthiness.
Now, one of the film’s great appeals is its sense of humor. This is uncomfortable stuff where people who can’t communicate with each other talk past each other and the audience is screaming for someone to listen to someone else. And yet, it’s still really funny when those breakdowns in communication happen, for a certain sense of humor. Pupkin just sitting right back down in the reception area after the production assistant tells him to, pretty much, go away is funny. Masha baring her soul to a tied up Jerry who doesn’t move is funny. One thing that isn’t terribly funny, though, is Pupkin’s monologue.
I remember the first time I saw this film and I was laughing pretty consistently through the monologue. Watching it now, I found it okay, better towards the end than the beginning, but still only okay. The audience laugh track helps sell it, but at the same time, we’ve seen Pupkin deliver a monologue to a large black and white image of an audience with the sound of canned laughter sweeping over the laugh track before. How real is it in that moment? I recalled the production assistant telling Pupkin that some of the one-liners weren’t that strong, and I suddenly realized that she was right. Pupkin’s comedy was okay, but it really wasn’t ready for primetime. That realization made me question the entire reality of everything, especially since we don’t see a single reaction to a single joke, we just watch Pupkin do his routine through a single, extended take.
This movie is funny, uncomfortable, and puts a harsh lens up to celebrity culture. Anchored by de Niro’s dedicated performance as a loser and Jerry Lewis’ steady performance as himself rather than his well-known film persona, The King of Comedy is a gem from Scorsese’s early 80s output.