RopeofSilicon Movie Club: ‘The King of Comedy’ (1983)


Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy
Photo: 20th Century Fox

One of the most fascinating things about Martin Scorsese‘s The King of Comedy is how closely it can be compared to the film he did seven years earlier, and yet how different the two films are perceived. Taxi Driver is looked at as a violent psychological thriller while The King of Comedy is described by many as a dark comedy.

Robert De Niro‘s performance in King of Comedy, as aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin obsessed with talk show star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), holds so many similarities with that of Travis Bickle, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Pupkin, in many ways, is actually scarier than Bickle. In this sense, I wrote above how “many” consider King of Comedy a dark comedy because, in many ways, I think it’s every bit as scary, if not more so, as Taxi Driver.

Both films could be looked at as character studies, though Taxi Driver probably more so as I see King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin as more of an embodiment and commentary on society than a study of one individual. Watching the film today it could be perceived as ahead of its time, but it’s actually suited for most any time considering it was made shortly after John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, an attempt made as a result of Hinckley’s fascination with Taxi Driver co-star, Jodie Foster. Is it a stretch to say King of Comedy could be looked at as a response to Hinckley’s actions (even though it wasn’t)? Certain to look at it through this lens does provide some perspective.

Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy

Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Someone like Pupkin scares me more than tickles my funny bone, and Sandra Bernhard‘s outstanding performance as the crazed fan Masha definitely gives the film a jolt of inexplicable insanity impossible to deny. When she and Pupkin decide to kidnap Langford you begin to see just how disturbed she truly is with motivations that can’t necessarily be assumed. Driving around with vanity plates and living in a luxurious house, you’d think she had more important things than celebrity idolatry.

Masha and Rupert combine to offer an interesting question, what’s scarier, a man that saves a teenager from prostitution through violence or a man and a woman that kidnap a TV personality and threaten to kill him if he’s not allowed his 15 minutes of fame? You may say, “But the gun wasn’t real,” to which I would say, “The threat of death certainly was.”

In today’s world Masha gives the appearance of a crazed Twilight fan. She’s one of the many that make up the hordes of people that wait breathlessly on their favorite celebrity’s next word and line up a week in advance just to get a glimpse at the likes of Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart. Heaven help whatever celebrity encounters a fan of her passion should she meet up with a man of Pupkin’s ambition.

You may look at The King of Comedy as a dark comedy, but try viewing it through the eyes of the celebrity on the other side and it quickly turns into a horror film.

The King of Comedy holds another comparison to Taxi Driver and that’s in its ending. The debate over whether or not the end of Taxi Driver is real or fantasy has been going on for years and while its not explicitly fantasy, I think Scorsese was a little more straight-forward with the end of King of Comedy than he was with Taxi Driver.

What’s interesting about both endings is they both almost suggest violence in one way or another can lead to some measure of celebrity and it is the human’s desire for celebrity that could lead to such things taking place. The realization of this is seen in Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Reagan. Whether he saw the ending of Taxi Driver as real or fantasy can hardly be left up for debate as he clearly believes Bickle got the girl in the end.

In today’s terms, celebrity is almost easier to attain than ever before. People are famous merely for being famous or for doing unspeakable things. Look at the likes of Paris Hilton, Snooki, Kim Kardashian and the Real Housewives (and husbands) of whatever city you choose. Go to the bookstore and I’m sure you can find at least five books within the first 20 feet written by someone perceived to be famous, but if you ask yourself “Famous for what?” you may have a hard time answering the question.

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Beyond all that, I loved the performances and you see those directorial flourishes Scorsese has become known for peppered throughout. I fell in love with his camera movement through the offices at the television station and the way the camera moved so fluidly through the aisles as Pupkin stormed his way from one office to the next (see that here).

The performances were outstanding across the board as this has got to be one of De Niro’s best performances ever, Lewis is excellent as Jerry Langford, though I do say this not having seen much of Lewis’ work overall, but that doesn’t make what he’s done here any less impressive, and Bernhard is over the top crazy as Masha, a character I’ve already spent a lot of time discussing.

I’ve yet to see all of Scorsese’s work, but while films of his such as Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are hyped beyond belief, films such as this and The Last Temptation of Christ deserve more attention. Personally, The King of Comedy is as good, if not better, than those three I just mentioned. What do you think?


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  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
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Based on last week’s poll, the December 3, 2012 Movie Club selection is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1971) starring and .

Use the following poll to vote for the December 10, 2012 Movie Club selection and to suggest films for future entries direct all your emails to

NOTE: Today’s poll was entirely made based on suggestions from readers writing in and I urge you to look up information on each if you aren’t familiar. Each offers what could be some fantastic conversation and I’m excited to see which one you decide on.

Next week’s film will be David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster. For more information and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage and hopefully it will be one you all watch as it is readily available on YouTube for only $1.99.