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The King Of Comedy

The King Of Comedy

By Ian Roberts • March 16th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
THE KING OF COMEDY (MOVIE)
20th Century Fox

Original release: February 18th, 1983
Running time: 109minutes

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Zimmerman

Cast: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard

The King Of Comedy

I threw myself off golden sand dunes and careened downhill icy hillsides. I single-handedly recreated every FA cup final goal in my garden. I may even have white-washed a fence or two. Ask me my most cherished childhood memory though and I’d say the thrill of sitting in a darkened room being shocked, scared and scarred by movies. I would come home from school to screenfuls of exploding heads, splintered limbs and flashes of naked flesh for I was raised in the age of the video nasty. The rule was simple – an 18 certificate was a guaranteed good time, 15 was promising, and PG and U for were babies – and the exception that proved it was The King Of Comedy.

Even at the tender age of twelve I could tell there was something decidedly sinister about Martin Scorsese’s tale of Rupert Pupkin, a mediocre stand-up comic badgering, stalking and kidnapping his way to stardom. The film’s lack of nudity, swearing or gore was reflected in its PG certificate and yet it felt darker and more disturbing than anything else that I’d seen. Even today, some thirty years on, there are scenes which I can only watch through my fingers.

The closer Pupkin gets to his big break, the more anti-social his behaviour becomes and the more excruciating the film is as a spectacle. His lack of social skills and self-awareness invites comparisons with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver; both are loner anti-heroes played by Robert De Niro, neither are great shakes when it comes to courting and both are rewarded for violent actions with the acceptance they crave. What separates them is their relationship with popular culture. When Travis watches television in his apartment or films at the porno theatre it’s as a disconnected and alienated outsider. What makes Rupert so chilling is that he’s a media consumer; he’s essentially one of us.

When we’re introduced to Rupert, he inhabits a separate realm to his idol and rival, the comedian and chat-show host Jerry Langford. The King Of Comedy starts with the opening minute of the Jerry Langford Show and Jerry’s easy manner is in keeping with a Rat Pack-style entertainer from the 1950s and 60s. The action cuts to Pupkin amongst a pack of autograph hunters and obsessive fans waiting outside of the studio’s stage door. Rupert’s membership of this social group has allowed him to get close to the world of celebrity and yet he rudely dismisses inquiries into newly acquired autographs by repeatedly claiming “it’s not my whole life”. Tonight he’s not here for merely an autograph.

The King Of Comedy

From the controlled environment of the television studio, Jerry and two security guards emerge into the bustling crowd to take the short but perilous journey to the waiting chauffeur-driven car. We see Rupert watching Jerry appear and then cut to Jerry passing through the crowd in slow motion, identifying his fame and celebrity status as the object of Rupert’s desire. Rather than follow Jerry’s route to fame through years of hard graft, Rupert’s set a trap which will give him a shot at gate-crashing Jerry’s exclusive world and achieving instant stardom. Jerry gets inside his car but is leapt upon by Masha, Rupert’s accomplice, who thrashes around on top of him like a wild animal. For Masha, passively consuming the image is not enough; she wants to consume Jerry sexually.

After a brief struggle, Rupert grabs Jerry around the waste and pulls him out of the car. Here the action freezes for the opening credits to a soundtrack of Come Rain Or Come Shine by Ray Charles. The action resumes with Jerry at the mercy of the baying crowd. Rupert attempts to introduce himself but his rehearsed spiel is lost in the chaos and cacophony of crowd noise. Instead he attempts to protect Jerry by forcing the crowd back until Masha’s removed from the vehicle. Rupert follows Jerry in to the car and eventually convinces him hear some of his stand-up routine. Rupert takes this as an invitation to invade Jerry’s personal life and share his stardom.

Watching this opening scene today, a film buff may spot how it echoes the scene in Taxi Driver where Travis stalks presidential nominee Charles Palantine at a political rally. Travis has vowed to demonstrate his self-worth by assassinating The King Of ComedyPalantine but is forced to flee prematurely when spotted by security guards. Audiences at the time of The King Of Comedy‘s release are likely to have been struck by how this brief scene also drew upon real life events, making it an incendiary, audacious and even reckless piece of filmmaking.

On 30th March 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot twice as he left an engagement at the Washington Hilton by 26 year old John Hinkley Jnr. At his trial, the would-be assassin was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and instead it was Travis Bickle who was held up as the guilty party. Hinkley’s defence claimed that the already disturbed individual ‘absorbed the identity of Travis Bickle’ having watched Taxi Driver repeatedly, adopting Travis’s dress code and becoming obsessed with Jody Foster. ¹ Like Travis, Hinkley decided to prove himself to an indifferent world by killing a high-profile politician.

This remarkable example of life and art in a dialogue of violence goes back even further. Nine years earlier, on 15th May 1972, Arthur Bremer shot presidential candidate George Wallace five times following a speech, leaving Wallace paralysed. Bremer was a bitterly unhappy young man who felt alienated and unaccepted by society and who became gripped by an overwhelming desire to prove himself with an act of masculine aggression. He wrote in his diary that his purpose was to ‘do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC, FORCEFUL AND DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see’.

After his conviction for attempted murder, Bremer’s diaries were serialised in several newspapers and had a profound effect on Paul Schrader, a young man who, in his early twenties, found himself divorced, out of work and living in his car. An The King Of Comedyunhealthy obsession with guns and pornography was born out of this period of intense isolation. ² Drinking heavily and feeling increasingly suicidal, Schrader made a dramatic statement of his own which would have drastic and far-reaching consequences.

Over the course of seven days, he poured his and Bremer’s isolation and frustration into his screenplay for Taxi Driver, later noting ‘it just jumped out of my head like an animal’. ² The script made its way to Scorsese who instantly recognised his own anxieties and loneliness in Travis. When the film was released, many people connected with its largely sympathetic portrayal of existential rage and social isolation, John Hinkley Jnr being one of them.

Scorsese said nothing publicly on the Hinkley matter for months but finally broke his silence at a film festival press conference by asking ‘What am I supposed to do? Quit? Maybe my films do strike a nerve. That’s what they’re supposed to do’. He had already started working on The King Of Comedy at the time of Reagan’s shooting and it was in production when Taxi Driver was screened in court and blamed for turning Hinkley into an assassin.

SOURCES:

  • [1] Leighton Grist, The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1963-77 Authorship and Context, MacMillan Press Ltd, 2000
  • [2] Kevin Jackson, Schrader on Schrader, Faber and Faber, 2004
  • [3] Ed Sikov, The King of Comedy, Paul Woods, Scorsese: A Journey Through The American Psyche, Plexus Publishing Ltd, 2005

It would’ve been hard for any film to escape this kind of context, especially one which seemed eerily prescient. Those wondering how directly The King Of Comedy would address the controversy didn’t have long to wait. The theme of an isolated man lifting his personality from media output is established before the opening credits had rolled, in a scene which replicated the notorious attempted-assassination from Taxi Driver. Revisiting the site of the trauma was a remarkable gamble for Scorsese but one which paid off. Not only did he effectively turn the scandal back on itself, as noted by Sikov, but by confronting the controversy head-on I believe that The King Of Comedy successfully reclaimed the cultural identity of Travis Bickle. ³

The King Of Comedy

Ian Roberts

Ian Roberts

After spending the last ten years playing in bands and promoting electronica nights in Winchester (Hampshire, UK), Ian combined his love of film and music by co-founding SuperCool Cinema, a pop-up cinema specialising in live soundtracking and double-bills of cult classics old and new.

SuperCool cinema’s modestly sized film blog has also enabled him to carry on writing since completing his Master of Arts in Film Studies, highlights of which include his epic thesis on 21st Century revenge cinema and leading a group reading of the opening twenty minutes of David Lynch’s Inland Empire.

Put a gun to his head and demand to know his favourite three films and he would say 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robocop and Fargo but then follow you around saying that he was maybe considering swapping Fargo for The Fly or Notorious until you got your gun out again.

You can follow Ian on Twitter at @SuperCoolCinema and on Facebook.

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