The King of Comedy, the nickname given to the legendary comedian Jerry Lewis, is a film about lonely passion and rejection. It was directed by Martin Scorsese in 1983 and is one of his most ignored films in his career, although I found it to be very sensitive and well-made. It stars Robert Deniro as sociopath Rupert Pupkin, a self-idealized sociopath who wants nothing else than to become a talk-show host and comedian, like Lewis.
The film starts out with some unique scenes that contrast Rupert’s existence with the fantasies he has about his existence; he imagines he is sitting at a five-star restaurant with Jerry Lewis, arguing with him about taking over his show “for only six weeks”, when in reality, he would be lucky to squeeze out a two-word conversation with Jerry Lewis. A glimmer of hope shines at the beginning, when Rupert acts as Jerry’s bodyguard when he is being harassed by his fans. He gets in the car with Jerry and says he put his head out for him, a gash on his forearm as proof, and starts pitching his desire to be a comedian, not the act itself.
The comedian, Rupert, has a cut-out stage in his basement where he practices his routine. His mother periodically beckons him to be quiet, but we never see her face, like the mother in Psycho. What the film expresses unlike any other film is awkward tension; when Rupert is out on a date with a bar-tender he likes, when he is sitting in the reception room and says, “I’ll wait”. It is all about this inner tension and his desire to rid himself of it through comedy and personal demands.
If the movie was more successful, the final scene would be considered a classic: After forcing himself onto the stage, Rupert surprises us all with a magical act of witty comedy. Jumping on the bar-counter, Rupert plays the bar t.v. for the bar-tender, finally able to impress her with something real, not told. The King of Comedy is a brooding film, a meditation on popularity and star-power in American society, and an entree in Scorsese’s filmography that is on the same shelf of his greats, like Taxi Driver and Raging bull.