The King of Comedy Marks 40th Anniversary

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

The King of Comedy–the fifth collaboration between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro–marks its 40th anniversary.

According to the film’s logline on Hulu, it “is a funny depiction of the dangers of celebrity fandom.” This is partially true because The King of Comedy is a film about the depiction of celebrity fandom but it’s definitely not funny. If it were funny, there would have been plenty of laughs over here but the laughs were mainly lacking. There is nothing funny about a delusional comedian, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), kidnapping his idol and wanting to be on a popular late night comedy talk show. I am not kidding around when I say how familiar this film is to a 2019 film. There’s just something about narcissistic comedians that really hits a nerve with me.

Behind the scenes, the filmmakers definitely do their research. Per the film’s credits, both The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show are thanked. Carson had been offered the role before turning it down. As fine as Jerry Lewis is, it would be interesting to watch Carson in the role. After all, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) even has a former Tonight Show announcer (Ed Herlihy) as his own. Similarly, Carson’s own executive producer Fred De Corva cameos as Langford’s producer Bert Thomas. As for the band leader (Lou Brown), he was musical director for previous incarnations of The Jerry Lewis Show.

Rupert takes his obsession too far. It’s one thing to meet Rupert but it’s another thing to think you’ve hit it off and become great friends. There are proper channels that someone must go through before getting a booking on a talk show. Instead, Rupert fantasizes the many ways he thinks he could be friends with Jerry. Hell, he even brings Rita (Diahnne Abbott) to Jerry’s country home,  much to Jerry’s dismay. What happens now? Rupert does the only thing that he thinks he should do–kidnap Jerry with the help of fellow stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard). Rupert has demands and Jerry passes them along, thinking that he would be let go after it all ends.

While the film initially doesn’t show Rupert’s set, they end up showing the full set when he’s watching at the bar. He’s subsequently arrested and sent to jail for six years before an early parole. In any event, this film should teach us why access to mental healthcare is important. Someone like Rupert should never ever be in the position that they are in. Similarly, how does Jerry Langford not have better security at their home? The fact that De Niro went full method in his performance and directed antisemitic language at Jerry Lewis in an attempt to rile him up is just appalling to say the least. There are ways to get a credible performance out of an actor but resorting to antisemitism should never be one of them!

At the time of its release, The King of Comedy didn’t perform so well in the United States. Ultimately, it would earn $2.5 million against a $19 million budget. This isn’t to say anything against Scorsese or De Niro but maybe it was because of the subject matter itself.  I mean, look at the main plotline of the film: a comedian is stalking his idol. Sound familiar? I went into this film with much hesitation, not so much because of the filmmaker and talent but because of lingering PTSD from 2019. But anyway, one can definitely see some similarities with the earlier Scorsese/De Niro team-up, Taxi Driver. Rupert Pupkin is just as dangerous as Travis Bickle even though they have different methods.

While there are positive things to say about the technical aspects of the film, The King of Comedy isn’t a comedy but a dark satire that deals with the dangers of a celebrity-obsessed culture. Can you imagine this film taking place in an era with social media?

DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
SCREENWRITER: Paul D. Zimmerman
CAST: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Tony Randall, Shelley Hack, Fred De Corva, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Ed Herlihy, Lou Brown, Victor Borge

20th Century Fox released The King of Comedy in theaters on February 18, 1983. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.