When you’re engaged by any piece of pop culture, it’s easy to become obsessed by celebrity. Instead of recognizing the value of the art, we focus on the artist and put that person on a pedestal. Admiring what they do is one thing, but treating them like a god loses sight of the accomplishment. This trend has only grown easier with the Internet, and recent films like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring show how the lines of what’s acceptable get blurry. This is hardly a new conversation, however. Paul D. Zimmerman wrote the script for The King of Comedy in the late ‘60s during his time as a film critic for Newsweek. When Martin Scorsese’s film was released in 1982, audiences largely stayed away from the subversive look at our celebrity culture. Even so, its reputation has grown because it remains so timely today. In fact, it’s probably more relevant now than it was 30 years ago.
It’s easy to look at Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) as just a crazy loner. That would be too simple, however. It’s more interesting to dig into the mindset that sets up Jerry Langford (Jerry Lee Lewis) as the perfect star. Rupert fails to recognize that there’s no magic bullet to break into the industry. It’s spelled out repeatedly that he should start at the bottom and work up towards his goals. This is a guy who doesn’t understand the social cues that present a denial without rejecting him mercilessly. When a person walks away from you with a trivial excuse, the conversation is over. Rupert only sees the end goal and forgets the charisma and legwork that’s needed to reach it. There are plenty of funny people who’ve never moved beyond cracking jokes for their friends. Honing mediocre one liners and having a vivid imagination only get you so far in this nasty business.
Scorsese presents a New York City filled with star-crazed obsessiveness who do nothing but follow celebrities. The most harrowing moment is Jerry’s brief walk to his office where he’s accosted for autographs, told to “get cancer!” by an initially friendly woman, and tailed by a stalker (Sandra Bernhard). This is hardly the tourist-friendly New York that’s been sold in recent years. The crowds battle each other viciously to get even a moment with Jerry after his show. He lives an isolated life in fear and wants nothing to do with the public, yet their desire for him never ceases. Pupkin embodies the need to be Jerry, while Bernhard’s Marsha wants to possess him. This is the dark side of the glitzy Hollywood dream to become famous. It may look like fun and games, but these exalted figures must retreat to gated communities and rarely set foot in the normal world to survive.
What makes Rupert so chilling is the way that he convinces himself that he’s made a connection with Jerry. He becomes a staple in the office reception area and even shows up uninvited at his house. People initially fall for this charade, including an old high school friend Rita (Diahnne Abbott). He isn’t your typical loser who walks around with his head facing the ground. Rupert has created a persona of a winner that refuses to admit that he’s not ready to take the world by storm. It’s only within his comedy monologue that he’s able to admit his past demons. Shot in a single shot, his routine is brutally self-deprecating and offers a glimpse at the darkness hidden behind the smile. Rupert spends every waking hour convincing himself the world is his oyster. He dreams with cardboard cutouts and imaginary friends like Jerry, and that masks an inability to accept reality.
There’s a connection between Rupert and De Niro’s Travis Bickle, but it’s too easy to draw a direct line. This guy has been influenced by television, and it’s exacerbated his unfortunate tendencies. He thinks that his way out of the muck is becoming a star, but this culture makes him worse. Scorsese frequently depicts broken men who are lost within normal society, and we see that interest with his collaborations with De Niro during this time period. In his dinner with Rita, Rupert clutches his autograph book like a beloved child. It’s his life’s work, and he doesn’t see anything strange about it. He isn’t even interested in Rita for sex; she’s just a prop in his vision of a world where he’s the king.
The King of Comedy ends with a sequence that shows the ways that Rupert has become a celebrity. His book is a best seller, and his brazen attempts to get a slot on Jerry’s show have given him the fame he desired. The question is whether it’s actually happening. My initial thought was to read it as the ultimate satire on the vapid celebrity world. The guy with limited talent gets famous by going against the social norms of the business. That’s one way to read it, but it’s more likely another dream sequence for Rupert while sitting in jail. The narrator’s repeated lines of “Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen!” feel strange and something out of a distorted vision of reality. The earlier moments with Rupert imagining conversations with Jerry connect perfectly to this final sequence. This is the only way this story can end in his dreams, but the truth is probably very different.