There may be no pre-Office comedy as uncomfortable as Martin Scorsese's 1983 flop The King of Comedy, nor perhaps one as pitch-black, merciless, incisive and, most disturbingly, prescient. When it was first released, The King of Comedy gained some solid critical support but never found an audience. No wonder, considering how isolated, selfish, and brutally real the characters are.
The film centers on Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, a childish, whining autograph hound who wants to be a stand up comic. He sees his chance for stardom, as so many hopeful comics do, in an appearance on a popular late night show, hosted by Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Every night, Pupkin hosts an imaginary talk show in his mother's basement, in which he pathetically tries to roast cutouts of Liza Minelli (a reference to Scorsese's New York, New York perhaps?) and Langford, and cannot even come up with good burns against inanimate creatures who are unable to counter his lame barbs.
Somehow, Rupert manages to squeeze himself in Langford's limo and propositions the star for an appearance. Langford remains unfazed by this crazed sycophant and diffuses the situation by telling him to call the actual producers, setting in motion a series of polite rebuffs that make the point as clear as day. Of course, Rupert never takes the hint, and these professional refusals only give him more hope. We've all dealt with someone like this, so earnest you want to let him or her down gently but so clueless that gentle rejection never suffices. Only a definitive dismissal spoken aloud, and usually by that point screamed in exasperation, can do the trick, at which point earnestness morphs into zealotry.
De Niro plays Pupkin as sitcom distillation of Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta: like LaMotta, he's a bum who looks to stardom for a desperate escape from his banal life (LaMotta with his fists, Rupert with a mike), and like Bickle, he's teetering on total insanity. Just as the film itself is the director's most underrated project, so to does it contain the master actor's most underappreciated work, and certainly his most comedic. His recent comic roles usually place the tough guy persona he developed in his later Scorsese collaborations into farce, but those characters always seem too broad, self-aware without actually deconstructing the image. Pupkin, despite the change of occupation, is the same comic version of his manic Scorsese characters, but Pupkin works because De Niro plays him without an ounce of self-awareness. There is no winking, only that mechanical and strangely terrifying show-biz smile and those vacant eyes that glint as much from avarice as simple reflection of nearby light sources. Perhaps that's why Scorsese never fully dives into Pupkin's mindset: the man's too dumb and unremarkable to even have one.
The turning point of the film comes when Rupert, increasingly incensed that the people behind the scenes won't let him on the show, appears at Jerry's home. The moment when Rupert comes down the stairs to greet a returning Jerry and his perceived vision of a friendly chat is instead met with Jerry's understandable fright and rage chills an already cool film to sub-zero temperatures. You can combine the British and the American versions of The Office and not get a single moment as uncomfortable as this scene, a collision of dangerous blindness and bewildered, irate normalcy.
Scorsese and De Niro, whose improvised one-sided conversations with the cut-outs in his mother's basement are some of the most deeply, uncomfortably hilarious monologues committed to film, play the comedy dark, but there are a few broad screamers. When Pupkin and Masha (Sandra Bernhard) manage to kidnap Jerry, they force him to call his producer and read demands from cue cards. As the farce unfolds, Jerry calmly reads the cards to his producer, but has to pause when one is upside down and another is entirely blank. It's almost too ridiculous, but it provides a welcome chance for relaxing laughs after an hour of incessant squirming.
Scorsese constructs the film as a series of teased payoffs. When Pupkin kidnaps Jerry, it's an anticlimax. When that kidnapping actually gets him a monologue, the camera cuts away when Rupert takes the stage. Then when we finally see it, on a T.V. in a bar, we don't see any cutaways to reaction shots of amazed patrons or even a look of triumph on Pupkin's face. After it finishes, Rupert tries to grandstand but is whisked away by authorities. But this cold calculation is brilliant; the point of the story is not Rupert's victory but his descent into his own hell.
At the end, which many incorrectly cite as upbeat, Rupert receives a comeuppance far more sinister than jail time or death. His kidnapping turns him into a phenomenon and lands him his own talk show and a book deal. But this attention will not last; Rupert's is a fame with a shelf-life of milk. He thinks that he's won, but he just doesn't understand that the stage isn't the reason Langford is famous. Langford's talent and professionalism won him the stage. Turn your gaze, then, to the reality stars of the present, people who claw their way into our flat-screens and lives without any real ability save a blunted and vestigial sense of shame and somehow wring book deals and follow-up shows out of slivers of notoriety. Any of this ringing a bell?
At its core, this is an unflinching look at fame and the unhealthy relationship people have with celebrity. The true horror of Rupert is that countless people think that reading the various tabloid rags places them closer to their idols, that chasing an autograph somehow makes your life a bit better. And when our heroes do not act exactly as we believe they should, we turn on them. We see this behavior not only with Rupert but in an an ancillary yet essential scene, in which a woman excitedly asks Langford for an autograph, which he politely declines because he's very busy. The woman turns on a dime and shouts, "You should get cancer!"
Scorsese made this film in the wake of John Lennon's assassination at the hands of a superfan, and of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, which many blamed on Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Without ever seeming elitist or self-pitying, Scorsese places us on the other side of the fence, where the grass is supposedly greener. Many films try to break down the dark side of fame, but they usually go after the paparazzi. But Scorsese rubs our noses right in it and asks "Would you be nice to all the pests? Are you responsible for someone taking something horrifying and wrong from your work?" It's cathartic for him as well as the audience, because it stops assuring us that these sort of outbursts are not our fault, the result of warped individuals in a warped society and not of scapegoats.
Aesthetically, this is a big departure for Scorsese. His camera, normally so vibrant and restless, spends much of the time rooted in position, allowing the cold reality of it all to wash over us. Despite the kidnapping, there's no real violence; the gun is really a novelty lighter, and Pupkin cooperates with police when cornered. However, the film does subtly establish itself as a Scorsese picture. His characters always reach a state of inner peace after a terrible breakdown, usually awash in violence. Their state is still grim, and their futures are bleak, but they achieve a sort of zen in a baptism of blood. Interesting, then, that when Rupert walks onto the stage of his own show at the end -- as hollow and confining a hell as Travis' cab at the end of Taxi Driver -- he wears a red suit. Ergo, The King of Comedy serves as an endothermic aesthetic foil to Scorsese's greatest work, one that never opens a valve to release the pent-up rage and desperation of its protagonist. The terrible truth of the film, visible only in hindsight, is that it's no less disturbing than its counterpart. Maybe it's even more stunning; Rupert never brings out our conflicting emotions the way Bickle did.