The King of Comedy (1982): A Guest Movie Review

The King of Comedy directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De NiroGuest blogger Anna Työrinoja writes:

Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.

The Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese collaboration has brought us some of the best films in history. Someone might argue with me saying that, but by starting to throw out names like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas the majority of these contending voices would quiet down. All in all, De Niro has been Scorsese’s “muse” on eight occasions, and for me their venture onto the realm of comedy has been underappreciated. 1983’s The King of Comedy, a story of a passionate, fanatic mind of an aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) obsessed with his talk show host idol is one of the most underrated Scorsese films, and now more relevant than ever with its depiction of celebrity and the culture surrounding it.

Jerry Lewis plays Jerry Langford, a late-night institution who is idolized by Pupkin. In Rupert’s mind Langford is his friend and mentor, ready to give him his big break on the show, hugely popular coast-to-coast. In reality Rupert has only met Langford once after helping him escape from a deluded female fan, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who is sexually obsessed with Langford and believes she’s in an intimate relationship with him. Langford is an especially private person, living alone in a massive house and reluctant to embrace the fame his succesful show has brought him, he appears rude to fans due to his will to shield himself from intrusion and the before-mentioned “nutcases” like Masha and Rupert.

Rupert comes up with a plan to get his big night after being disregarded at the Langford Show headquarters. He asks Masha (who’s wonderfully insane BTW) to help him kidnap Langford in order to blackmail the crew to let him do his stand-up routine as the first guest whilst Masha holds a gun to Langford’s head. This ingenious plan, for some reason, works, and Rupert gets to do his bit and prove to his high school object of admiration Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a stunning bartender, that he’s not the loser she thought he was.

The King of Comedy walks the thin line of dramedy, it’s in part hilarious but behind it all lies a social commentary on the perils of fame and fanaticism. The celebrity culture is now bigger than ever, and a lot of people are obsessed with celebrities’ every move, mistake and fashion choice. Gossip sells millions of magazines a day, and private life is something the adored movie and television stars are rarely acquainted with. The pressure of promoting and intense competition all too often dictates the success and even the production of films is based on profit; quality is often compromised in order to maximise it. Is this the result of the industry itself, the media that puts celebrities on a pedistal or the fans that worship beside it? I don’t know, but this film takes a good look in the showbiz mirror and depicts the insanity involved both on- and offscreen.

The characters are often stereotypical fame-workers, showbiz buffoons, grumpy, ‘unappreciative’ celebs, mental fans, people with big dreams trying to break through. As said in the film, the bottom’s the best place to start climbing up the ladder leading to celebrity and fame, as if it were some kind of far-end goal in life, a prize only the best and most talented, beautiful people reach. Kids now don’t want to be movie stars, they want to be celebrities.

The phenomenon of reality TV made the whole thing even bigger; no need to be talented, you just need to get screentime and your path to glory has begun. These kinds of disillusionments that cloud the minds of many today is what’s driving Rupert Pupkin’s mind. He doesn’t have a plan of paying his dues in the dark bars of Manhattan, performing his stand-up routine to crowds of nine to make his way into the limelight. He wants it now, and Langford can give it to him. He can give him the connections, the exposure that will make him an overnight star, a household name. And the funny thing is, this is where the film ends. His crazy antics land him in jail, making his claim to fame the craziest–and perhaps at the same time the cleverest–in the history of New York late night.

Many go as far as to say that De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pupkin is his best role ever (I’m still hailing for Raging Bull), and TBH they’re not far off the mark. He transforms into this lovable, dillusional loser to such an extent that by the end I was sure I was watching a true-life documentary. His laugh is magnificient, the posture, the strut, the lost look in his eyes, and the final enjoyment, the realization of his dreams, his own show all are inpeccable details that De Niro colors the character of Rupert with. In the end I guess it’s a matter of preference, but all in all this film, and De Niro’s performance has been seen by too few, and appreciated by even less. Ahead of its time, The King of Comedy is on the surface an entertaining life story of passion, inside a look on the destructing and reinforcing power of fame.

I give it a 9 out of 10.

I’m sure you can understand. Doing the kind of show I’m doing, it’s mind-boggling. There’s so much stuff that comes down… you can’t keep your head clear. And if that’s the case, I’m wrong. You’re right. I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, I apologize. I’m just a human being… with all of the foibles and all of the traps… the show, the pressure… the groupies, the autograph hounds… the crew, the incompetence… those behind-the-scenes you think are your friends. You’re not sure if you’ll be there tomorrow… because of their incompetence. There are wonderful pressures that make every day… a glowing, radiant day in your life. It’s terrific. OK, if all of that means nothing… if I’m wrong,in spite of all that… then I apologize. I’m sorry. If you accept my apology… I think we should shake hands. We’ll forget the whole thing. I won’t press charges. You could be in deep trouble… but I will not press charges.

You will like The King of Comedy if…
– you enjoy the likes of Conan O’Brien.
– there’s no such thing as bad times with De Niro.
– you think escapism can be smart.

Aspiring criminologist and writer Anna Työrinoja has been dishing the dirt on the most hyped films for years but has only recently moved to the realms of internet blogging. Split Reel focuses on life-changing cinema, new and old. You can visit on her Twitter at

What’s your favorite Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Jerry Lewis films? Sound off in the comments!

  • Dennis Harrington

    You are right that this brilliant film is too little known, but I disagree with you on the ending.

    Throughout, there are many scenes — not set off by any change in color or focus — that are clearly not part of the movie’s “reality,” but instead are Pupkin’s fantasies. The ending may be real, or it may be another of those fantasies, and I suggest that this ambiguity is intentional.

  • William Sommerwerck

    A truly great film, an unappreciated masterpiece. De Niro /is/ Rupert Pupkin. Even the best actors rarely achieve this absolute union with the characters they play.

    Note that there is /no/ background score. Scorsese doesn’t want anything that will distance us from, or “interpret” the events on the screen. We consequently feel the emotions in a direct way, which, given Rupert’s fundamental schmuckiness, can be toe-curling embarrassing. (It has been said that the actors were so embarrassed by their characters’ behavior that scenes which should have taken hours to film took /days/.)

    Even if it weren’t an otherwise-great film, simply seeing the perfectly cast Jerry Lewis with his mouth duct-taped shut is worth the price of admission many times over.

    10 out of 10. An absolute classic. This is one of those rare cases where Roger Ebert is dead wrong.

    PS: It’s “GoodFellas”, not “Goodfellas”.

  • Dave J

    Jerry Lewis was beyond brilliant in this film. I am so glad he made this film with Scorsese and De Niro. It was altogether a great movie and a bold one. Black comedies to me are the best kind of comedies. The junk comedies made today are not even worthy of cable TV.

  • Marie

    Yes, I agree that King of Comedy is a bit of a masterpiece mainly because of that thin line that everyone as to traverse to keep the film properly unhinged.
    p.s. I think whoever wrote this piece should be proofed more carefully. It was riddled with errors which is insulting to the readers.

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