Monday, December 18, 2006

The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)

Coming from the actor-director combo that brought us characters as memorably violent as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Max Cady, The King of Comedy is a refreshing change of pace. There is just one notable act of violence in the entirety of the film, an act that does not directly involve Robert Deniro’s central character, Rupert Pupkin. Rupert Pupkin spends a lot of time introducing himself to various people that he hopes will be able to assist him on his quest for stardom; but, despite his best efforts, he has a name that people just can’t seem to get right. Somewhere in his life, somebody told Rupert to not let anyone stand in the way of achieving his dream. He pursues the big break that he knows must be waiting just around the corner with unwavering tenacity. At one point, a television executive politely offers him sound advice about honing his craft in local comedy clubs and working his way up. However, for Rupert, who prefers to rehearse his stand-up comedy material in the comfort of his mom’s basement, there is no need to allow others to critique his presentation. He is a star already, a diamond just waiting to be discovered and displayed.

The unfortunate recipient of the bulk of Rupert’s attention is television star, Jerry Langford, played with supreme focus and control by Jerry Lewis. Langford is clearly modeled on late night king, Johnny Carson, whose act has been recycled and revamped by countless followers – from David Letterman and Conan O’Brien to Arsenio Hall and his direct inheritor, Jay Leno. Even daytime hosts such as Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen Degeneres owe a debt to Carson. Scorsese gives Langford a majestic curtain from which to emerge, a jolly sidekick named Ed, a goofy bandleader and even goes so far as to incorporate Carson’s favorite song (“Come Rain or Come Shine”) into his opening credits. However, most of what we see from Langford is not his on-stage persona. Instead, we see a human being who desperately craves privacy. In an effort to maintain the semblance of a regular life, he walks unescorted down a New York street only to have someone wish cancer upon him when he refuses to honor a fan’s absurd request. Casting Lewis is an excellent choice by Scorsese because it means we do not really need to see much of Langford’s on-screen persona. We simply transfer Lewis’ potential for zaniness over to Langford and note with astonishment at how tired and serious he seems when patiently waiting for Rupert to go away.

Over the course of the film, Rupert, with the assistance of another rabid Langford fan played by the uniquely insane Sandra Bernhard, forces his way into a spotlight that he has not earned. Although the presence of Deniro keeps us on guard for a sudden explosion of violent rage, Rupert approaches every situation with a sunny disposition. Even when he is being tossed from a building, he does not lose his temper, opting instead to inform those responsible that they are making a huge mistake. Whereas other Scorsese thugs might use a gun, a knife or a fist to get their point across, Rupert’s weapons of choice are persistence and civility. Films about our obsession with celebrity are not in short supply; however, Scorsese’s film is noteworthy for the way in which it subtly exposes Rupert’s motivation. Ultimately, we realize that Rupert’s desired reward is not truly fame or fortune, but simply the opportunity to gaze upon someone’s face as it occurs to them that Rupert Pupkin is somebody that matters – somebody worth remembering. When we finally get a chance to see Rupert’s stand-up, it is decidedly average at best. However, it allows us to see how Rupert has taken a lifetime filled with disappointment and focused it into a solitary goal.

Both Deniro and Scorsese are clearly working outside of their safety zone. Yet, this is precisely what makes the film endearing and ultimately worthwhile. Operating without their most reliable weapon – brutal violence – they are forced to find another way to engage the audience. This means that while The King of Comedy may lack the polished confidence of a film like Goodfellas, it comes across as a one of Scorsese’s most thoughtful and affecting efforts.



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