“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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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.
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