What if success was not measured in quality but in popularity? Where achievement resided not within the honing of one’s craft but within fame itself? Where spending years in obscurity gets tossed aside in favor of shallow recognition and immediacy? Oh wait, if this isn’t the culture we live in, then what is it? Perhaps it is also the mindset of wannabe standup comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Granted, Rupert really does believe he is great and ready for the big stage (we witness this via his many fantasies) but fame seems to be the thing he longs for more than anything else. He wants to be known and to ultimately prove his worth to those who believe he’d not amount to anything more than a ‘hill of beans.’ Add to this his brazen, belligerent manner and it’s no wonder he ultimately gets what he gets—and no, I don’t mean jail.
The King of Comedy has remained an overlooked work despite its 40-year run, yet this is not only one of his best films but one that has proved to be prophetic in terms of how this business we call show business operates. Fame, ratings, who you know—this is what matters, and Rupert realizes this. The film opens with late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) escaping into a limo from a crowd of aggressive fans. Thinking he has privacy at last, Rupert pushes his way in. Already, they are on a forced first-name basis, as Rupert speaks to Jerry as though he’s always known him. ‘What is your name again?’ Jerry asks.
Rupert wants Jerry to check out his comedy routine. ‘I’m dynamite, Jerry,’ Rupert insists. Fatigued, Jerry remains patient as the conversation wears on. However, despite his aggravation, he offers Rupert the opportunity to contact his secretary, Cathy Long (Shelley Hack). ‘I’ve had this conversation with you so many times,’ Rupert informs. ‘Did it always end this way?’ Jerry asks. Rupert says that it has. Like many delusional no-talents, Rupert lives in his own mind. He carries out conversations with cardboard celebrity cutouts while his mother continually tells him to lower his voice. (A scene that would later influence Frank Whaley’s The Jimmy Show, which I recently discussed on a film panel.)
Yet it seems that Rupert has been at this a long while. Following his interaction with Jerry, Rupert approaches Rita (Diahnne Abbott), his old high school crush who works at a bar. ‘What’s your favorite celebrity?’ he asks over dinner. When she answers ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ he presents to her an autograph from an oversized sketchbook. Then, he hands over another, asking her to guess who it is. ‘Rupert, I’m tired,’ she responds, annoyed. He informs her that it will be worth a lot in a few weeks. (It is his own.) ‘You haven’t changed at all, Rupert,’ Rita says despondently.
If one is to admire Rupert for something (despite his narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders) it might be for his persistence. Granted, his persistence is not always for the best intentions, but if the man wants to be famous and on air, then all be dammed he is going to achieve it. Upon showing up at Jerry’s office, Rupert insists that he has an appointment. He calls, then waits, then calls again, and is rebuffed each time. He even aggressively reacts to Cathy Long, Jerry’s assistant who, after politely listening to one of his tapes, informs him that she doesn’t think he is ready. ‘Your punch lines are not very strong,’ she says. Meantime, no one can seem to recall Rupert’s name.
A contrast to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin has unrelenting confidence. Unlike Travis, Rupert does not care how he comes across—there is no such thing as being too pushy with Rupert Pupkin. In his review, Roger Ebert refers to The King of Comedy as ‘one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I’ve ever seen.’ Odd that he would say this for a film that releases itself through comedy. Gone are the wounds and pain we witness in Taxi Driver, and instead we’re presented with arrogance and coerced opportunity.
Furthermore, Sandra Bernhard is great as rich, desperate, and obsessed Masha who orchestrates with Rupert to kidnap Jerry. Using a toy gun was a smart choice on Scorsese’s part not only for the humor but also that it reinforces that the goal of the criminal pair was to never physically hurt anyone—instead, they’re just desperate idiots. ‘Sometimes I’ll be taking a bath and then wonder if Jerry is taking a bath,’ Masha informs tied-up Jerry before stripping to her underwear. However, what is most remarkable is the believability of Rupert’s opening monologue. ‘Jerry is tied up and I’m the one who tied him,’ he says. While Rupert’s timing is good, Ms. Long was also correct to say that his punch lines are not very strong. ‘I was born in Clifford, NJ back when it wasn’t a criminal offense. Is anyone here from Clifford? Good, we can all relax now.’
Unlike Jimmy O’Brien in The Jimmy Show, Rupert is not a bad comedian, but merely mediocre. Had he worked on his craft, might he have managed to achieve success on his own? But then what is the fun in that? DeNiro’s performance incorporates just the right amount of ego and humor even when it works against him. ‘I don’t mind waiting,’ he tells Jerry’s receptionist. ‘Is that cork?’ He asks as he looks at the ceiling. Rupert is pushy and insistent and appears as though he might snap at any moment. Yet unlike Travis, he never does. This gives the sense that if one is merely willing to present himself as something, then after enough persistence it might be only a matter of time before others come to believe it. Ultimately, Rupert gets his book deal and his comedy shows sell out. Nothing like piggybacking off the fame of someone else, but if the work is good, does it matter? After all, Rupert might have gotten it right: ‘Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.’
* * *
If you enjoyed this review of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a panel discussion on Frank Whaley’s The Jimmy Show, an analysis of Eldridge Cleaver’s classic Black Panther text Soul on Ice, and a discussion of the implosion of antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi.
More from Jessica Schneider: FOUR ARIOS: Poems From Jessica Schneider, A World as Violent and Predatory: Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), More Ambition Than Talent (& Knowing It!): Larry Blamire’s “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” (2001)