It’s a strange thing watching a movie without a hero, and by hero, I don’t mean anything extraordinary. I’m just talking about someone remotely likable who could be identified as a protagonist. As Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy begins, your hero radar quickly hones in on Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). We meet him at the stage door to the Jerry Langford Show, and in the onslaught of crazed fans, he kind of does look like the normal one. He dismisses another die hard with disdain, saying, “This isn’t my life.” Clearly Rupert has loftier reasons for being at that stage door. He can’t just be some hanger-on who wants an autograph or a piece of fame, can he?
Indeed he can, and though Rupert looks strikingly saner than the nutter (Sandra Bernhard) who was waiting in the back of Langford’s limo, he quickly reveals himself to be one of the countless many who simply want something from Langford (Jerry Lewis). In this case, he wants a shot at fame on the show, and on some innate level, he wants to be Jerry’s friend and equal. As Jerry gives him the polite brush-off, we still hold out hope. This is just the beginning, the very first baby steps in what will ultimately be a success story, right? Sort of….
The plot darkens when we discover that Rupert is close friends with Masha, the screechy nutter from the back of the limo who’s all flailing elbows and kneecaps. As they storm down the streets of New York City, barking at one another in tones that no one would call normal, wearing clothes that quickly identify them both as eccentrics, you start getting a pit in your stomach. Rupert isn’t okay. He’s not your hero.
Each scene builds a greater sense of discomfort with Rupert. We experience his delusions of being a talk show host like Jerry, interviewing celebrities and making the audience roar with laughter. He wants to be somebody, and in his head, he already is. In his mother’s basement, he’s just another crazy who’s entirely likely to crack and scare us all to death with some very unsettling behavior.
His efforts to impress the neighborhood bartender (Diahnne Abbott), former cheerleader and local beauty, are cringe-inducing at best, as are his dogged attempts to get booked on the Jerry Langford show. Nothing is working for Rupert, and so he and Masha kidnap Jerry, tape him to a chair, and hold him for ransom. Hey, if you can’t get what you want, why not just take it? Freakishly, it kind of works.
Though The King of Comedy is often uncomfortable to watch, there’s no denying that it is a fascinating, spot-on, darkly funny depiction of the kind of delusional thinking that can now turn a person into a reality TV star. Robert De Niro is perfectly smarmy and guiling at the same time. Sandra Bernhard as unhinged and unstable as she should be. And Jerry Lewis is at his driest, smartest, and most subdued. In short, the movie is brilliant – awkward as anything, but brilliant.
Blu-ray extras on the 30th Anniversary Edition include a panel conversation with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Jerry Lewis (with a special appearance by Sandra Bernhard) at the Tribeca Film Festival, a making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes, and the original theatrical trailer.