The Dark-Humored ‘King of Comedy’ Holds a Mirror to 21st-Century Society
COMMENTARY: Forty years on, the film seems more prescient than ever.
On Feb. 18, 1983, The King of Comedy was released in movie theaters across the United States.
It was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. Although the film attracted positive critical reviews upon release, it flopped at the box office.
At the time, audiences saw it as a tale of a delusional man who, failing in the realities of life — work, friends, family — escapes into a world of make-believe centered on a late-night television show host who seems to him the epitome of success. The film had the air of a freak show about it: an odd film about an odd man obsessed with something that in the early 1980s most people would have imagined not remotely possible, namely, worldly success through media.
Today, the film looks strangely prophetic. In the early 1980s, the depiction of the central character’s obsession with media celebrity may have been foreign to audiences; by 2023, it seems prescient.
The plot revolves around Rupert Pupkin, played by De Niro. He is a man who lives with his mother but who dreams of being a television comic. He is fixated on Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) who hosts a television talk show.
Pupkin sees himself as a comic genius whom Langford will recognize and mentor if only Pupkin can speak with the star. Unable to achieve this in any standard way, the unbalanced Pupkin resorts to extreme measures to attract the attention of Langford and the world.
The plot line is secondary, however, to the real focus of the film, which is the nature of fame. Langford enjoys fame; Pupkin wants it. Interestingly, both are depicted as isolated, sad, lonely figures. Yet Pupkin lives for one reality, and that is a virtual one: to be a guest (and then a host) on the late-night television show hosted by Langford. De Niro plays Pupkin exquisitely. He conveys his character’s bizarre notions with just enough moments of believability to offset one’s incredulity. But the casting of Jerry Lewis as Langford was especially genius.
Jerry Lewis was a huge star on stage, radio, television and film by the early 1950s. This breakthrough had come as a result of his partnership with Dean Martin. Together, the two men became successful, wealthy and famous. By the late 1950s, their creative partnership had ended, however. Thereafter, they went their separate ways to enjoy continued success throughout the 1960s, as, in Lewis’ case, his solo films still found an audience. His stage, and later cinematic, persona was of the clown — a hapless innocent abroad in a world that is as hostile as he was chaotic.
Perhaps due to the mass appeal of his physical humor to mainstream cinema audiences, American film critics were often dismissive of Lewis’ on-screen gifts. The French film establishment, however, came to revere him as a latter-day Chaplin. By the early 1980s, as his film career slowed, Lewis was known more for his charity work for children broadcast via an annual telethon than for any screen acting.
Therefore, the casting of Lewis as Langford in The King of Comedy was unexpected, to say the least. The star had only ever played comedic characters. This was his first serious role. Here, he was playing a man who made a living by being funny on screen. Watching the movie today, Lewis is perfectly cast for the part, but he was not Scorsese’s first choice. The then-king of late-night talk shows was Johnny Carson. Scorsese approached Carson to play Langford. Carson declined. It is easy to see why. The part of Langford exposed not only the superficiality of television talk shows but also the curious narcissism pertaining to that world and the equally curious obsessives that such manufactured media personalities attract.
So the part of Langford was offered to Lewis. He accepted it immediately, proposing some changes to the script, to which Scorsese agreed. One of these changes is telling. The Langford character was originally to be called “Robert Langford.” As the movie was partly to be filmed on the streets of New York City, Lewis suggested that Langford’s first name should be changed to “Jerry” so that when the star was recognized on those streets and people called out his first name it could be incorporated into the film. As it turned out, this is precisely what happened. There are scenes where people stop Jerry Lewis or call out to him as he walks the city streets. But in a film that is all about the blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction, this proved more revealing than perhaps was first imagined.
This blurring is no more evident than in the figure of Pupkin. And yet, Scorsese could not have envisaged that the world many years after the release of The King of Comedy would be filled with legions of Rupert Pupkins.
For there appear many whose lives are directed toward public acclamation, acquired not through politics or public service, not through learning or teaching, but through media exposure.
In the film, Pupkin is seen inhabiting the basement of his family home that he shares with his mother, who is heard but never seen. Pupkin’s basement is a mock-up of Langford’s television studio. It has cardboard cutouts of Langford and other media stars with whom Pupkin interacts in his imaginary world.
In his basement, Pupkin is a television star. There, his fantasies are played out in the concealed world in which he exists.
In 2023, that basement and the fantasy it facilitates would be the set of a YouTube channel, with Pupkin an internet success. His warped view of his talents, his obsessions with celebrity and his unremitting focus on achieving something seemingly so out of reach would make him a viral sensation. The oddball misfit of 1983 has all the makings of a media sensation four decades later.
Perversely, Langford’s world of corporate television, with its multilayered and expensive staff, buildings and security, seem dated. One of the themes running throughout the film is the difficulty that Pupkin has in accessing Langford. We watch as the former devises increasingly complex stratagems in which to do so.
Back in the 1980s, the media had its gatekeepers, personified by the barrage of receptionists and security guards who frustrate Pupkin’s efforts to meet with Langford. Today, there are no such boundaries. Anyone on Twitter can be reached, at least initially. Anyone can start a talk show via podcast or video, all of which can be uploaded to the internet and shared with a potential audience of which Langford and his producers could only have dreamed.
Upon its release, The King of Comedy was understood as a parable about deluded fans of the rich and famous. Now, it appears more like a mirror held up to the 21st-century world. And what does that reveal? Pupkin, the deluded wannabe-celebrity, creates a media empire in his basement, while Langford, the morose television star, epitomizes everything the world craves — yet he lives alone and seems secretly to despise all around him.
Instead of being taken to the top of a mountain and shown all the riches and trappings of worldly success, one wonders if we are being offered such blandishments — at the same price — but now via an internet connection in a basement with the promise of viral celebrity.
Today, watching The King of Comedy brings the realization that, in our contemporary world, the tragedy at the heart of this film has become instead a seemingly endless farce — and one that may be costing us more than we imagined.