Bright Lights Film Journal

Satirical Excess and Empty Vessels: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy

“Rupert Pupkin is uniquely a product of late capitalism near the close of the twentieth century; his fantasies reflect mass media’s ability to twist the real world into an insubstantial collection of images that mimic reality — the representation of self becomes more than the actual self, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference.”

Scorsese’s 1983 box-office poison The King of Comedy starred Robert De Niro as delusional acolyte to the stars, Rupert Pupkin, and Jerry Lewis as a mirror-image of his own talk-show comedian persona, Jerry Langford. Sandra Bernhard plays a supporting role as another hyperactive super-fan, Masha. The King of Comedy, written by Paul D. Zimmerman, does not resemble a typical Scorsese picture; the camera is pinned in place instead of roving around. This is seemingly to facilitate our unflinching stare into the lives and behaviour of the characters, when often we want nothing more than to look away. Scorsese’s films usually teem with passion and activity, but Pupkin’s world is more sedate, colder. Scorsese’s go-to director of photography, Michael Chapman, turned down work on the film because of the director’s choice of style: “His plan was to use largely empty sets, flat lighting, and old-fashioned box-like framing” (Rausch 102). Essentially, it was filmed to look like television.

Scorsese once again deals with an obsessional pursuit, a common theme in his work. Rupert Pupkin’s obsession is particularly emblematic of the twenty-first century; it extends beyond the traditional pursuits of money and power, pursuing instead something more fleeting and all too modern: fame. More specifically, fame for fame’s sake: fame predicated not on riches nor on talent but merely on the desire to be seen and idolized. This desire is what consumes De Niro’s Rupert, a twitchy, perennially polite wannabe comedian who refuses to take no for answer when he meets his idol, Jerry Langford. He misunderstands Langford and his entourage’s continual brush-offs, revealing his desire not merely to be around Jerry but to emulate him and eventually usurp him. He begs Langford for a guest spot on his hit television show, fantasises about Langford deferring to his ego, and eventually becomes deluded enough to appear uninvited at the celebrity’s country house, only to be humiliatingly turned away in front of his crush, Rita (Diahnne Abbott). He and Masha then decide to take matters into their own hands and kidnap Jerry with a toy gun, demanding a spot on the show in exchange for Jerry’s safety. Rupert is then allowed to perform his comedy routine on television. With startling irony, Rupert’s bid for fame works, and although he is sentenced to prison for kidnapping, he is given a short sentence and comes out of prison famous, writing a best-selling book and receiving his own television show. The ironic conclusion to the film emphasizes its satirical look at the American obsession with empty fame, owing some debt to the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, Network.

The rise of consumerism and tabloid celebrity culture in the late 1970s and ’80s is dealt with in both Network and The King of Comedy, but they become uncannily more accurate as time has passed, predicting the rise of reality television, social networking, and the disposable celebrity. Rupert simply decides, in the same aggressive manner as his Scorsesean compatriots, that his 15 minutes will be gained at any and all costs. The overnight celebrity becomes the new fixation of the American dream.

The King of Comedy was poorly received, both by audiences and critics. “Unlike the context for Scorsese’s earlier films, by the time of The King of Comedy, there was no longer an American film culture that encouraged or even allowed for challenging work” (Raymond 30). Considering the context of 1980s Hollywood and its “Reaganite entertainment” — escapist, often anti-intellectual blockbusters that provided happy endings and visceral enjoyment, it is easy to understand why the vulnerability and discomfort in The King of Comedy missed the mark with audiences. The overall cost of the film was recorded at $20 million; its domestic gross was roughly $2.5 million. It didn’t do the film any favors that it was marketed as an outright comedy; it certainly is not that, though it has many darkly comic moments. Critics were more generous than audiences, but also offered some intriguing clues as to why the film flopped. Roger Ebert, for example (typically a Scorsese enthusiast), called the movie, “unsatisfying,” “frustrating,” and an “emotional desert,” though he goes on to say that it is not by any means a “bad movie.” Pauline Kael called it precisely that, going on to say that it gave her “cold creeps” and that it was “empty” (458). It is interesting that there seems to be a level of discomfort with both critics about the feelings the film evokes; both rightly refer to its unexpected coldness and the emotional distance of its characters, but another aspect also seems at play, one that William Ian Miller suggests: “the unfunny comedian humiliates himself and one of the sure indications that you are watching someone humiliate himself is that you will be embarrassed by the display” (329).

Miller’s essay discusses at length the prominent emotion of embarrassment in The King of Comedy. Watching someone embarrass himself is, as Miller points out, embarrassing for the viewer. Unlike most other emotions, it can be experienced vicariously by the onlooker — thus it can be inferred that the film’s unflinching focus on scenes of humiliation was a major cause of its box-office unpopularity, and more so, its lukewarm critical reception — both Kael and Ebert expressed feelings of discomfort while watching Pupkin’s cringe-worthy behaviour. In Taxi Driver, there is a scene in which the camera pans away from Travis at a phone booth, as he is rejected by Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy. The camera never shies away from his violent outbursts but does so from his embarrassment, as if it is too painful to watch. Violence is an external force through which the audience can, at some base level, take pleasure — all the while aware of their safety. Humiliation, however, seems to be something else entirely; it is deeply unsettling to watch, and we feel as if we should turn away to maintain the individual’s dignity. It affects filmgoers — and critics too, it would seem — far more directly than onscreen violence frequently does. As Miller explains, “We do not want our humanity so utterly vulnerable. Yet it is precisely the fragile basis of our respectability that produces the comic: what is a clown […] if not the spectacle of our own ineffable foolishness?” (327).

So Rupert can be understood as an existential clown, a comedian who is his own perpetual joke; he is unpopular both within the film and as a watchable protagonist because of his innate ability to remind us of our own human faults. But more than this, Rupert is to some extent aware of his flaws; there is something coldly calculating about his strategic stubbornness, his inability to “take a hint”; it serves a purpose. Pupkin is both a predator and a victim of his environment; that is to say, of a media-saturated, single-minded America, dedicated to misleading pursuits of fame and fortune. As Miller states, he uses his awkwardness in order to push people into doing whatever it is he asks of them — by breaking social norms, he essentially embarrasses others into fulfilling his wishes (Miller 334). Still, he is not self-aware enough to overcome his social ineptitude nor his obsession with Langford’s stardom — so he is ultimately positioned as a victim as well as a ruthless participator in this environment.

Scorsese’s men often stop at nothing to achieve their ends and will justify any violence to get ahead. Whether they are deluded or cruelly indifferent, they fail to see the “bigger picture” or ripple effect of their actions. This applies not only to Rupert but to his mirror image, Travis Bickle. Both are severely deluded about their actions and believe them to be justified, but Taxi Driver never descends into outright fantasy the way that The King of Comedy does. It becomes clear early on in the film that Pupkin has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality; this culminates in his apparent belief that he has been invited to Jerry Langford’s country home. This is not the only instance of his confusion; the first comes when Rupert appears to be speaking with Jerry in a restaurant only to cut back to him alone in his basement, carrying on a conversation with no one. In a seamless shot-reverse-shot sequence, the film switches between reality and overt wish-fulfilment with ease, something it continues to do with a self-effacing editing style. The film form thus makes it difficult to discern reality, although the sheer incredibility of Pupkin’s daydreaming does delineate it fairly well. Pupkin is uniquely a product of late capitalism near the close of the twentieth century; his fantasies reflect mass media’s ability to twist the real world into an insubstantial collection of images that mimic reality — the representation of self becomes more than the actual self, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference. Timothy Corrigan explains the ending of the film as such: “In this performative take-over of the public sphere by the individual, the notion of the individual here is paradoxically redefined by complete incapacity to differentiate an internal and external reality […] Instead, the surface of a mass-media logic and images fully replace any more traditional figures of psychological crisis (family, parents), Rupert’s life is a basement stage with cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli and Langford […] Rupert easily accommodates himself to this scene because he is bothered by no more internal or subjective depth than these cartoon cutouts” (206).

As Pauline Kael wryly observes in her review of the film, De Niro’s performance is from the “Nobody’s-Home school of acting” – she is referencing Pupkin’s vacuousness. Although Kael clearly disliked the film and meant this as a negative remark, Scorsese has frequently called De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy his best, and most subtle. It takes a great deal of inner resolve to portray a character whose “single-mindedness is horrifying precisely because there seems to be absolutely no governing intelligence behind it” (Sikov 136). By portraying Rupert as frighteningly lacking in ideology or thought behind his ambition, Scorsese (and De Niro) critique American society and television’s ability to create mindless zombies, jumping on the bandwagon to fame without any discernible talent or even passion. Pupkin is one of the worst creations of modern consumer society; he is not only completely shallow but dangerously convinced of his future success, to the point of committing criminal acts. He is dead behind the eyes except for the glimmer of show-biz “you can make it” drivel and the insincerity of his interactions with the rest of the world. As Max (William Holden) tells Faye Dunaway’s corrupt television producer in Network, “You’re television incarnate, Diana: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy.”

Though perhaps not as ruthless as Network‘s Diana (nor as intelligent), Rupert functions in much the same way; he is empty but for the constant stream of media images that substitute for real emotions and thoughts. The characterization of Jerry Langford, on the receiving end of Rupert’s constant attentions, does not bode much better for Scorsese’s commentary on the American media machine. Critic Richard Schickel points toward the complicity of the media celebrity in this vision, describing the moment when Rupert bursts in, uninvited, to Jerry’s home, and the star finally loses his patience. “The intruder is more at ease, less guilty, than the intruded upon, who must finally dimly recognize that his privilege is based on the exploitation of a national lunacy Rupert personifies” (84). In other words, the celebrity is something of a parasite, feeding off the public wish to watch and to be entertained. Were it not for the public’s voracious desire to play the role of the voyeur, the celebrity would not be afforded the position he has. In the unhealthy cult of media celebrity, it is people like Rupert who create people like Jerry, inasmuch as the reverse is true. They are not, perhaps, all too different in the end; they merely play interchangeable roles within a tedious moneymaking pursuit.

There is, of course, a huge leap between the imaginary deference and admiration Rupert fantasises about getting from Jerry and the actuality of his being ignored. His fantasies reveal not only his delusional attitude but his “smallness of character” (Miller 333) — he imagines his high school principal apologizing for his bullied adolescence and dreams of his stardom outshining Langford completely, to the point where Langford becomes almost sycophantic. Rupert Pupkin does not merely admire the comedian but seeks to better him, in some way to render Langford pathetic — suggesting that his ambition is not only superficially single-minded but unnecessarily ruthless, his imagined state of competition with Jerry reflecting the unknowingly Machiavellian mindset Rupert has. “The psychological basis of Rupert’s need to be seen as greater than he perceives himself to be is reminiscent of Henry Hill’s desperate need to feel that he was a somebody” (Miliora 113). Like Goodfellas‘ Henry and many other Scorsesean males, his desire for individual success is overbearing, swallowing up and destroying any perceived obstacles without hesitation.

Travis Bickle, too, resembles Rupert in his goals and the way he pursues them. This is a useful comparison to make, in that it communicates Scorsese’s position about the common male archetype in his movies. Although Pupkin is less violent than Bickle (using a toy gun rather than real ones) and has different motivations, both are ironically lauded in the media as triumphant heroes. As Miliora points out: “Rupert Pupkin is Travis Bickle in comedic garb and without the blood. […] Both live in hovels, have minimal-type jobs, and are failures at relationships. […] The violent actions of both Travis and Rupert indicate that each has a grandiose fantasy of himself that defends against his insecurities as a potent man. […] As depicted, both attain fame in a culture that admires heroes to such an extreme that it raises to celebrity status people who not only lack creativity but, also, may be utterly selfish as well as psychologically disturbed” (116).

There is much critical argument about whether the (arguably implausible) endings of both Taxi Driver and of The King of Comedy are merely projections of their protagonist’s fantasies. Both conclude with unexpected, ironic fame in spite of the character’s psychotic and merciless behaviour. Both have also been interpreted as a representation of reality, albeit far-fetched — being used to satirize the insanity of contemporary American society and its admiration for ruthlessness. As Miliora says, it ironically makes heroes out of individuals who are in no way heroic. Regardless of whether the conclusion of The King of Comedy and Rupert’s success (in which he “makes ’em laugh” at The Jerry Langford Show, cuts short his prison term, writes a best-selling book, and receives his own talk show) is fantasy or reality, what it most certainly does seem to be is satire.

There are two scenes in particular that highlight Scorsese’s satirical take: one in which Rupert does his stand-up routine in his basement, in front of a cardboard audience, and one at the conclusion, where he performs his routine on stage at The Jerry Langford Show. The first uses a long take to record Rupert’s monologue to the cardboard audience, soundtracked by the canned laughter used by television comedies. Marc Raymond describes what follows: “The camera slowly dollies back farther and farther until Rupert is revealed to be in an extremely large and empty room […] The sequence manages to show both the emptiness of Rupert’s dream and the unimportance of what he actually has to say compared to what the television technology (the canned laughter) is actually saying for him. It manages to critique the blandness of the television style by both showing it, a comedian performing in front of a cardboard mise-en-scene, and remarking on it, tracking away from and behind the action to provide distance and satiric commentary” (28).

In the aforementioned scene, there is an interplay of straightforward satire in the content at surface-level, as well as a more subtle formal style that supports the content in its critique of Rupert and matches it. Although The King of Comedy is the rare Scorsese film that practices “stylistic economy” (28), certain camera techniques (in this case slow zooming out to reveal the barren mise-en-scene) still reveal meaning.

Raymond goes on to discuss the second scene, of Rupert at The Jerry Langford Show. There is a high-angle shot of Rupert entertaining on stage, followed by “elaborate camera movement to close-up” that can “best be explained by the satirical term mock-heroic, the majesty of the technique suggesting an importance that the rest of the film has systematically shown to be hollow and debased” (28-9). There is a strange irony to the camera movement, which approaches Pupkin from a respectful distance and then lovingly zooms in to a close-up on his triumphant face; if the rest of the film weren’t so full of this savage irony, we might not realize that the film form itself is satirizing Rupert’s sudden fame and the cheerful response to his stand-up routine. The fact that the audience responds well and laughs at Rupert’s (not particularly funny) routine is another provocation of satire; John Simon recognises some ambiguity and asks, “Are the filmmakers saying that Pupkin’s comedy is junk, but that on the Langford Show […] it enchants an audience of Pavlovian fools? Or are they saying that Pupkin does have that minimal talent needed to make anybody’s success in this abysmal business? Is the film about weirdos cannibalizing their betters, or are there no betters, and are large numbers of — if not, indeed all — Americans a breed of imbeciles?” (575).

Ultimately, if the television-watching public determines the value of its celebrities, then Rupert Pupkin falls astonishingly short at every level. He is a precursor to the modern phenomenon of the talentless media figure, aided by sensationalist tabloid stories and distasteful publicity stunts. Pupkin’s own act of kidnapping reads in one way as an unusually successful publicity stunt. His rise to apparent fame darkly satirizes the modern American obsession with celebrity, the increasingly insipid objects of audience worship, and perhaps as Simon suggests, the imbecility of an American public that blindly bows down before the television. As in many of his other works, Scorsese’s version of the American dream and Rupert’s pursuit of it are portrayed as hollow, corrupt, and hopelessly misguided.

Works Cited

Chayefsky, Paddy. (1976) Network screenplay, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists.

Corrigan, Timothy. “Chapter Seven: Spinning the Spectator: Fans & Terrorists in the Third Generation”. A Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “The King of Comedy,” Roger Ebert Movie Reviews. 15 May 1983. Web. Accessed 16 April 2012.

Kael, Pauline. “Jokers: The King of Comedy”. Taking It All In: Film Writings 1980-1983. London: Marion Boyars, 1986. Print.

Miliora, Maria T. The Scorsese Psyche on Screen: Roots of Themes and Characters in the Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004. Print.

Miller, William Ian. “I Can Take a Hint”: Social Ineptitude, Embarrassment, and The King of Comedy.”Michigan Quarterly Review. 33.2 (1994): 323-344. Print.

Rausch, Andrew J. “Chapter Five: The King of Comedy,” The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010. Print.

Raymond, Marc. “Too Smart, Too Soon: The King of Comedy and American Independent Cinema”.Film Criticism 34.1 (2009): 17-35. Print.

Schickel, Richard. “Beyond the Fringe of Fandom: The King of Comedy.” Time. 14 Feb. 1983, 84. Print.

Sikov, Ed. “The King of Comedy.” Scorsese: A Journey through the American Psyche, Ed. Paul A. Woods. London: Plexus Publishing, 2005. 135-140. Print.

Simon, John. “Grating Comedy.” National Review 35.9 (1983): 574-576. Print.