I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that Martin Scorsese‘s The King of Comedy came out 27 years ago. Robert De Niro‘s Rupert Pupkin represented, of course, a burgeoning mob obsession with celebrity that’s probably ten times more malignant today. The problem is that viewers have to spend 109 minutes with him — perhaps the most clueless and pathetic worm in cinematic history, and definitely with one of the worst haircut-and-moustache combos in any realm.
And yet this scene between De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott and the servants has never left my head. It’s agonizing, excruciating and sadly truthful all at once, and there’s no comfort to be had from any aspect of it. You just want the fucking scene to end, and yet it’s spellbinding.
I also love that scene when a fan begs Lewis to sign an autograph for a relative and he politely refuses, and she says “You should get cancer…I hope you get cancer!”
De Niro is a moron whom you can’t stand, but we’re all stuck with him. Lewis’s Jerry Langford, an old-school talk-show host by way of Johnny Carson, is stuck with Pupkin also and wants nothing more than to be rid of him, but you can sense that Langford isn’t very good company himself — he seems morose, resigned and more than a little contemptuous of his fans. (Perhaps, one suspects, like Lewis himself.) And forget Sandra Bernhard‘s Masha — a braying egoistic psycho.
And yet distasteful and unappealing as these characters are, they’ve somehow “grown” The King of Comedy into something more than what it was. The film has endured the test of of time because of people’s willingness to be tortured by it, year in and year out. It’s not just an uncomfortable film to sit through, but perhaps one of the most deeply uncomfortable viewing experiences with movie stars ever put before the public. I too am spelled by this quality, the way it makes me clear my throat and grind my teeth and feel faintly nauseous.
I’ve either trained myself to think this way or have been trained by the FSLC dweebs: The King of Comedy is a great film! Are the people who swear absolutely by each and every frame of Barry Lyndon (i.e., the ones who don’t share my “dead zone” issue) also King of Comedy devotees? Something tells me they are.
Has there ever been another lead character as chalk-on-the-blackboard detestable as Rupert Pupkin?