An odd and uncharacteristic entry in his filmography, Martin Scorsese’s 1983 The King of Comedy, a cautionary tale of mediated reality and borderline psychosis, tells the scathing story of one man’s insecurity and his obsessive, unscrupulous and relentless pursuit of fame.
Rupert Pupkin is a deluded and malicious man, who resides at the edge of morality. But the line that separates him from other, more ‘normal’ individuals is thin indeed. In different circumstances, Pupkin could arguably be a highly successful man – streetwise, determined and flexibly adaptable. In a parallel universe he would not be loathed, but greatly admired.
Aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) kidnaps TV show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) – with a little help from fellow deranged Masha (Sandra Bernhard), in order to extort 10 minutes of airtime. Under the guidance and supervision of the FBI, the producers at the Langford’s TV program decide to concede to Pupkin’s demands. He appears on the show, steals few laughs from the live audience and at the end is immediately apprehended by the authorities. After three years in prison he publishes a book of the events and finally is given a TV show of his own.
Rupert Pupkin wants to be loved. He wants to be loved by the girl at the bar; by Jerry Langford; by the whole country. And in the context of the other disturbed characters played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s films – Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, 1973; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, 1976; and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, 1980 – Rupert Pupkin is the most dangerous one. Despite , or perhaps because of, the fact that Pupkin is the less overtly violent of them all, De Niro’s character in The King of Comedy is the worst excess in human nature.
..Critics’ Picks: The King of Comedy © The New York Times.
He is the most deplorable human being exactly because he seems so normal, so close to the average crazy guy on the street. Although Pupkin’s delusions appear to be borderline schizophrenic, in so many ways he is so boringly common. As R. P. McMurphy – the most normal of all crazy guys – would have put it, Rupert is no crazier than the average asshole on the streets. However, it is not his crazy normality that makes him a dangerous character. But the relentlessness in the pursuit of his deluded goals. Paradoxically, it is this trait of perseverance, which is a virtue for most people, that sets him apart.
‘You’ve got to start at the bottom.’ says Jerry Langford as a cynical mentor. ‘I know…’ replies Rupert, with more wit than he is given credit for. ‘That’s where I am: at the bottom.’ The impression that people might have that Pupkin wants to achieve fame cutting corners is false to me. The way I see it he’s been doing the hard work for so long now. Only it is the wrong kind of work. Instead of practicing his act for small audiences, little by little perfecting his jokes, he rehearses the performance of a big star that he is supposed to become. The problem with Rupert’s approach is not about laziness, but has to do with megalomania.
The desperate act of kidnapping Langford is the result of a frustrated sense of injustice. Rupert is proceeding in this way because Jerry promised to listen to his tape and didn’t. Because in that first encounter, at the beginning of the film, inside the taxi, Jerry seemed to really have understood Rupert’s talent. The shambolic plan is not a cynical subterfuge – Rupert does not doubt himself. He is not doing that because he believes it is the only way that he can show his act. He is doing that because he senses a connection with Jerry and thus his act deserves to be only in his show. I suspect that he would refuse to perform in any other show, no matter how popular or prestigious that would be.
What is astonishing about Rupert is how almost imperceptible are the contradictions in his personality – credit be given to De Niro’s superb performance. How is that possible that this guy can be utterly deluded, blind to the most obvious of faux pas, and simultaneously be quite methodical about his plan to achieve his goal? He looks and sounds like the most normal of individuals and behaves like the craziest one. If he did not live in a society which is itself obsessed by fame, then we would have seen him for what he really is: someone so insecure and deprived of love and recognition. Instead, he is an average asshole with common idiosyncracies.
The fact that his act on the TV show is adequately funny and that after going to prison for the kidnapping, he writes a book and becomes a celebrity is not only a fit and a plausible end, but also the ultimately ironic slap in society’s face. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad, that The King of Comedy and Rupert Pupkin end up laughing at us and our fixation with the rich and the famous. If the final act of the film represents a dream or not, it does not really matter, for the dream went sour a long time ago.