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The King of Comedy (1982)

“Better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

Just when you think you know which Martin Scorsese film is his greatest, you’re reminded of another and then another. The King of Comedy isn’t as flashy and full of pop culture gangsters that the director, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci made cult heroes of. Could that be the reason I don’t often here it referenced when film geeks are talking about the director and his go to actor during the first half of his career behind the camera? Perhaps and while I’m not about to tell you that this magnificent film is his best, I sure as hell am not going to disagree with someone who puts forth an argument that it is.

The King of Comedy is that good and should be seen by one and all and not just because of the Scorsese – DeNiro connection but also due to the dynamite performances on screen from costars Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard not to mention the film’s comment on the lunacy of fame.

DeNiro stars as Rupert Pupkin. An odd name to be sure that fits in with one of DeNiro’s oddest portrayals. As Pupkin, DeNiro yearns to emulate his hero, the world renowned comedian, Jerry Langford (Lewis). Lewis stars as a Johnny Carson type night show host and stand up comedian. Essentially he’s the king of comedy. When a chance meeting between the two occurs Lewis makes the mistake of offering up hope to the wanna be comedian that lives in DeNiro’s own private world. Lewis has essentially awakened a delusional stalker, albeit a gentle one of sorts. It’s Sandra Bernhard who Lewis should really be wary of. She’s right off her rocker as a woman who loves Lewis like no one else can. There are some amusing bits of poor Jerry giving us his classic run, legs from the knees down moving out to the side as he trots along the city streets in an effort to lose her. Seeing Lewis run does nothing but bring back fun memories of his many cartoonish characters from his past.

When DeNiro seems to be getting no response at the Lewis offices for his assured appearance (in his mind) as a standup comic on the Langford nightly show, he begins to spar with Jerry’s lead handler Shelley Hack to no avail. When a showdown occurs with Lewis at the star’s home, Lewis delivers a verbal tongue lashing that sends DeNiro over the edge of sanity leading to an ingenious plot that will result in kidnapping and his show business break.

DeNiro as Pupkin, “I’m gonna work 50 times harder, and I’m gonna be 50 times more famous than you. “

Lewis as Langford responds, “Then you’re gonna have idiots like you plaguing your life! “

I prefer to be a bit vague on the finer plot details in hopes that you’ll seek out this rare Scorsese film to see if you agree with me that it’s really an outstanding film with performances to match. The way the film evolves in both reality and the fantasy world of DeNiro meshes together wonderfully, keeping us on our toes to decipher what might be real and what isn’t. I’m still scratching my head when it comes to the fade out. Is what we’re seeing reality or what DeNiro is experiencing in his world of dreams?

One can approach the film from different viewpoints on what genre it fits into. Drama? Comedy? How about a thriller because as far as Jerry Lewis is concerned, he’s having no fun when DeNiro and Bernhardt decide to get serious with their fan worshipping. I think I’ve come away from the film appreciating it in all respects. Not having seen it in years at one point, I found it truly disturbing where as this time I was laughing up a storm with number two son Kirk who wanted to experience the film for the first time. We live in a household of Jerry Lewis fans so to see Jerry pulling some of his antics in DeNiro’s fantasy land can tickle the funny bone.

Having no idea what Jerry Lewis is like in real life, I think this is a rare performance by an actor in that it gave people what they believed was an insight into what the iconic comedian was like behind the scenes. Art imitating life. Some of Jerry’s press releases through the years probably didn’t help separate Langford and Lewis either.  It’s an unfair situation but Lewis comes across so dynamically that he’s totally believable and if memory serves, there was talk of an Oscar nomination back in the day. Riding on his performance here, Lewis could very easily have branched off into a world of dramatic films and for my money could easily have convinced me he was some sort of mobster in the next Scorsese gangster film, Goodfellas.

When this film hit theaters, I was in line on opening night and hate to admit it but I came away disappointed at the time. I was a little too young to fully understand the film and it’s awkward story telling to a youngster who wasn’t yet old enough to drive. All I knew was that the great DeNiro was making a movie with a comedy legend who I grew up with and watched yearly on the Labor Day Telethon in what was obviously a laugh out loud comedy. The title said so.

Years later I’ve seen the film a number of times and come away appreciating it more and more each time. Have you seen it? Do you think Lewis steals the show from the unorthodox DeNiro or flashy Sandra? Where does this rank on the list of Scorsese accomplishments? Considering this was a box office failure at the time of it’s release, will it somehow join the ranks of other films that disappointed initially to become a classic with the passage of time?

If you’re telling me you haven’t seen it, then get at it! These guys are still laughing……

4 Comments »

  1. Top five from me.
    1st Taxi Driver top, has to be for me. Perfect in every way. Then it gets blooming difficult!
    Can’t pick between Goodfellas and Raging Bull for 2nd and 3rd
    4th King of Comedy – but to be honest it could easy swap places with the two above on a good day and I feel bad having Scorsese make me put it in 4th place! hehe.
    5th Mean Streets

    “The Wolf of Wall Street” could be knocking on the door of 5 but then Johnny Boy opens the door and punches it straight in the cake hole!
    Great post Mike. King Of Comedy has been a massive favorite for many years, it’s just so good.

    Where do your Marty flicks fare?

    • Off the top, push come to shove, I’m a big fan of Raging Bull. That’s probably my answer for his best/my favorite Scorsese flick. Then Goodfellas. After that it depends on the day of the week….lol.

  2. One of Scorsese ‘s very best films. This and After Hours are very underrated, though. Anyhow, De Niro is simply brilliant. But, Lewis really shocked me here. He nearly steals the film with an uncharacteristically dramatic performance. As you said, he could have had a new career as a dramatic actor.

    • Lewis opened eyes with this one but I think the knock was what was slipping into the media about him from insiders claimed he was very much like this in real life and honestly he can give some harsh interviews that lend credence to this line of thought.

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