The first time I saw Meet the Parents was a surprising revelation. Robert DeNiro could do comedy, very well? Analyze This wasn’t some one-shot-deal? Mind, blown. At that point, I wasn’t the obsessive movie-watcher that I am today, just an above-average fan, so my exposure to the classics of film (both known and beyond the fringe) was quite pedestrian. It didn’t take Roger Ebert’s headspace, though, to know that Robert DeNiro was (and remains) an acting pillar, and I’d fortunately dabbled in his assorted tough-guy roles with positive results: Casino, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull. Saw them all, loved every second of each.
One older DeNiro gem that slipped through my cracks was 1983’s The King of Comedy, the fourth, and most unusual, of the actor’s collaborations with director Martin Scorcese. To be completely honest, I’d never even heard of the film until about five months ago, when its title repeatedly popped up in pre-release press for the Seth Rogen/Jody Hill bizarre black comedy Observe and Report that recently tanked at the box office (despite being a fascinating, uncomfortable watch). There was much talk of Observe and Report‘s ending taking a cue from that of The King of Comedy, a claim that held much credence since Hill himself went on record numerous times saying that one of his big influeces was Scorcese’s Taxi Driver—-the guy clearly has a thing for Scorcese/DeNiro duets.
Nearly two months after Observe and Report‘s release, I’ve finally gotten around to sitting with The King of Comedy, and I’m damn glad that I have. A satirical take on the dangers posed by the obsessive fans of celebrities, Scorcese’s dark somewhat-comedy is a great exercise in shattered perceptions. At the time (and even, to some degree, still to this day, aside from the Meet the Parents films and Analyze This and That), DeNiro was seen as a pure badass, stern, chilling, and rugged thanks to his award-caliber turns in the brooding Scorcese trifecta of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. “Rupert Pupkin,” his wannabe standup comedian character in The King of Comedy, is the polar opposite—-geeky, needy, pathetic, bumbling. Thirtysomething yet still lives at home with his annoying mother. Clings to childhood dreams of fame and grandeur. Utilizes the mental scars of domestic neglect, abuse, and social casting-away to concoct elaborate daydreams where he’s the star.
Pupkin believes that his one shot at the bigtime is to land a spot on The Jerry Langford Show, the movie’s version of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, hosted by one-time funnyman Langford (played by comedy legend Jerry Lewis). His endless attempts of catching Langford in the parking lot to fire some material his way have gone useless, so one night he forces himself into Langford’s limousine amidst a fan riot and takes the star’s openness as friendship, even though Langford is merely trying to shoo the crazy guy off. From there, Pupkin proceeds to stalk Langford’s office, exaggerate nothingness into dreams where he and Langford are old pals, and, ultimately, kidnap the guy in an effort to blackmail his way on the air. All played with a sarcastic, witty sense of humor by Scorcese, DeNiro, and screenwriter Paul Zimmerman.
The King of Comedy is owned by DeNiro, in a performance that really established the man as an acting force to be reckoned with. As “Pupkin,” he proved that he could pull off a sad-sack just as well as a ticking timebomb like Travis Bickle. There’s not a moment where the audience is expected to fear Rupert Pupkin, even though he’s clearly a mental patient, and that’s a testament to the endearingly sorry quality that DeNiro nails. A scene where Pupkin practices his hopeful-Langford-Show-routine to a wall covered with pictures of laughing/clapping audience members could be played for unease and psychological creeps in any other film, but here it’s a fantasy excerpt that comes across more sympathetic than scary.
The main reason why Jody Hill’s Observe and Report is such an unsettling picture is that Rogen’s character, “Ronnie Barnhart,” is a complete monster. Rude, cold, mean-spirited. Possessing little to no redeeming personality traits. The type of guy that, if you met him in real life, you’d most likely have your guard up and fist clenched, unlike The King of Comedy‘s harmless tool “Pupkin.” In that respect, The King of Comedy accomplishes more, is much easier to tack down. The one problem I had with Observe and Report after I saw it (a feeling that lasted for about three days) was that I could never put my finger on the film’s tone. “Is it nihilistic? Has Hill successfully fucked with my head to the point where I didn’t know what the hell I was watching? Or is this uncertainty the aftermath of a young filmmaker’s mistakes in screenwriting and thematic execution?” When you watch a film like The King of Comedy that swishes the “antihero winning you over by simply being his despicable self” conceit, it’s hard to assess Observe and Report.
The most telltale scene in The King of Comedy comes at the end, when Pupkin has finally gotten his five minutes of airtime on The Jerry Langford Show, after kidnapping the host and coaxing the police department to let him do his thing as a means of freeing Langford. We don’t see his routine until the time when Pupkin uses it to his vindication against bartender Rita, his high school crush who never took him seriously. With two detectives as his escorts, he goes to her bar and puts the show on the bar-TV right as his act begins. The bit is shown in its entirety, and, while his jokes play well with Langford’s studio audiences, it’s an open-heart-surgery of a monologue. Revealing the terrible upbringing that he had in the care of his alcoholic and tyrannical father and his outcast-role as a student in Clifton High School (Yup, the same neighboring Clifton, New Jersey, that I’m in frequently). It’s through this standup show that we finally begin to understand why Pupkin is the way he is—-not that he becomes totally tragic, but just more worthy of our sympathy than the delusional freakshow we previously knew.
Whether you’re a fan of Martin Scorcese films, Robert DeNiro’s acting prowess, or just quality flicks in general, The King of Comedy is one to definitely rent if you’ve never seen it. Not a life-changing or monumental film; just one that hits on all cylinders and offers a chance to see the unheralded versatility of its creative forces.
If this defining piece of dialogue came directly from writer Zimmerman, the guy should be praised: “It’s better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime.”