Scorsese: The King of Comedy (1982)

With The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese farewelled the golden era of New Hollywood, commencing upon a string of self-consciously minor films that would produce his most underrated body of work by the time the 80s had concluded. Appropriately, then, The King of Comedy also marked his last collaboration for a decade with muse Robert De Niro, who capped off this fertile period in his career by playing the character that Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta feared becoming – their inner beta male. Here, that figure takes the form of Rupert Pupkin, a needy, oblivious, anxious, desperate and pathetic stand-up comic, who finds refuge in the imaginary world of fandom and celebrity worship to compensate for his own thwarted ambitions. Rupert doesn’t have much in the way of a personal life – he lives at home, doesn’t work, and doesn’t have friends. All he has are Masha, a fellow celebrity scrounger, played by Sandra Bernhard, and their shared object of adoration, Jerry Langford, a renowned stand-up comedian, and host of The Jerry Langford Show, played by Jerry Lewis. Yet this very lack of a personal life – or alternatively, this total fusion of his private life and celebrity ambitions – are finally what enable Pupkin to overtake Jerry, against all the odds, and transform himself into a remarkably prescient progenitor of modern influencer culture.

As that all might suggest, The King of Comedy draws heavily on the second half of Raging Bull, which charts LaMotta’s decline through a series of increasingly demeaning stand-up acts, while injecting a postmodern picaresque that would bloom even more extravagantly in After Hours, Scorsese’s next film. Yet the solipsism of all Scorsese’s macho protagonists of the 70s are a point of reference here, where they form so many prototypes of Pupkin’s solipsistic self-absorption, which evokes the insularity of LaMotta’s boxing bouts, Bickle’s insane monologues, and even De Niro’s solo renditions in New York, New York, to present us with a masculine aspiration that has no point of reference other than itself. Of course, that’s what makes Pupkin so fascinated with Jerry Langford, and The Jerry Langford Show – or, more precisely, with Jerry’s relationship to The Jerry Langford Show, his capacity to both exist as himself and his own celebrity mediation in one and the same instant. It feels both nostalgic and prescient that this character is named Jerry, since it both harkens back to Jerry Lewis’ own comic career, but also foreshadows the arrival of Jerry Seinfeld, himself an enormous fan of both Lewis and Scorsese’s film. Poised between Jerry and Jerry, Lewis and Seinfeld, The King of Comedy sits on the cusp between two eras of stand-up, marking a shift from the lounge style of the 50s to the mass mediated boom of comedians during the late 70s and 80s.

It’s this new wave of celebrity media that Pupkin hopes to surf – not by expelling his inner beta male, as occurs with Scorsese’s earlier protagonists, but by involuting himself around it until it becomes all that constitutes him. Just as this involves capitulating to the very forces of emasculation that Scorsese’s earlier characters resisted, so The King of Comedy leans into the postmodern stylistics that frequently functioned as a vehicle for this emasculation. That makes The King of Comedy the first of Scorsese’s films to luxuriate in overtly postmodern architecture. We first see it in Jerry’s apartment high above Manhattan, but it constellates around the space-age lobby of The Jerry Langford Show, where Pupkin spends much of his time in an attempt to engineer a conversation with his idol. This lobby, which is the closest Pupkin comes to a real home, seems to fractallate at the glass brick threshold that marks the end of the reception era and the portal to Jerry’s inner sanctum, as Pupkin approaches it again and again, while simultaneously trying to recreate its disorienting flow in the papier-mache television set that he has constructed in the basement of his mother’s house, where he lives. Even (or especially) naturalistic gestures feel ridiculous in these spaces, as when Pupkin looks up and comments on the cork ceiling of Jerry’s lobby, or when he yells maniacally at his mother (who always remains off camera) when she asks him to turn his music down a little.  

Over the course of the film, this postmodern architecture gradually conjures up the virtual space of fandom, starting with the adoring audience that Pupkin imagines greeting him as he interviews the cut-out, life-size celebrity images that dot his basement, in a forerunner of the mannequinised body that circulates through the Manhattan nightscape of After Hours. The more flamboyant Rupert’s fantasies become, the more elaborate this postmodern design grows, and the more it approaches virtual reality, culminating with his hallucination of Jerry listening to his stand-up tape and confirming that he’s “got it,” which takes place against an abstract field of white surfaces, neon abstractions, and banks of television screens, with no traditional semblance of spatial depth or linear perspective. Yet these scenes differ from the fantasy lives of Scorsese’s older sociopaths in that they become milder as they go, reflecting Pupkin’s unique capacity to remain calm, cool and collected in the midst of ultra-connectivity. In fact, mildness is Pupkin’s signature – making this Scorsese’s only crime picture to receive a PG rating – the mildness needed to subordinate every potential conflict into his fantasy life.

Meanwhile, Jerry, like Pupkin, is prescient that he is on the cusp of a new era of celebrity connectivity, but is equally aware that he is just a little too old to completely harness it. We see this realisation dawn in one of the most resonant scenes in the film, which simply involves Jerry walking from one part of Manhattan to another. He’s immediately greeted by everyone, from a car that slows down so the driver can chat to him, to a group of builders at the top of an enormous construction site who call down to him. This alternation between street level and skyscraper level is already a little disconcerting, insofar as it recalls the paranoid sightlines of 70s surveillance thrillers, but the sense of fandom quickly turns sour when a woman abuses Jerry for not talking to a friend of hers on a pay phone. Subliminally, the rapid pans and zooms of the New Hollywood surveillance lexicon bleed into Jerry’s prescience that Masha is stalking him down the pavement, prompting him to run across a busy street and make for the sanctity of his office, as the camera grows jerkier and glitchier in sympathy. Lewis’ gangly gait here is one of our few glimpses of his iconic physical comedy, but it’s dissonant and disoriented in this context, only emerging in tandem with one of the eeriest and creepiest scenes in the film.

As Pupkin gradually converges on Jerry, he thus reveals a contradiction in Jerry himself. On the one hand, as the most successful network host in the nation, Jerry has the capacity to absorb the surveillance anxieties of New Hollywood, and make mass media homely, domestic and beneficent in the process. On the other hand, this street sequence is driven by a quantum of surveillant panic that Jerry can’t fully absorb, or transmute into feel-good affect. Pupkin, by comparison, possesses this skill in droves, partly because he doesn’t register any difference between his televisual and “real” selves from the outset. Before he ever appears on television, before he even has the slightest hope of ever appearing on television, he carries himself as a television star, presaging the central tenet of contemporary influencer culture: to have influence, you must assume influence. Just as The King of Comedy leans into the beta masculinity and postmodern space that plagued Scorsese’s previous films, so it embraces the televisual hyperreality that Raging Bull, with its defiantly and gorgeously cinematic black-and-white vistas, and its exploitative narrative of televisual static and sponsorship, rebelled against. From the opening scene, The King of Comedy is regularly cut with televisual interludes, fixtures and flourishes – it begins and end with television footage – while Pupkin’s ultimate fantasy is to stand in front of his own image on a television, ideally on an example of what Anna McCarthy described as the ambient televisions of the 80s and 90s: that is, televisions in bars, airports, waiting rooms; television as almost invisible mass mediated flow.

While Jerry might have the platform, Pupkin is both more virtual and viral. He hasn’t got his own television show, but he has an even more powerful skill set – an uncanny capacity to squeeze, seduce, insert and insinuate himself into any space, not unlike LaMotta’s preternatural ability to duck, dance, weave and parry himself around opponents in the ring. We see this difference between the two comedians when Pupkin turns up unannounced to Jerry’s summer house with his girlfriend, Rita Keene, played by Diahnne Abbott, in tow. Jerry isn’t present, but Rupert reassures the staff he’s an old friend, makes himself comfortable, and explains Jerry’s childhood photos to Rita, all while Jerry himself remains locked outside for eight minutes, ringing the doorbell to his own home, to no avail. Completely unfazed when Jerry does eventually comes in, Rupert casually refers to him as “Jer”, offers him a drink, and barely bats an eye when Rita, realising what has happened, breaks up with him on the spot. In this scene, Pupkin feels like less a character than a new medium, the next stage in mass spectacle beyond coast-to-coast syndication, which is why Jerry can’t help but possess a grudging fascination with him. For Pupkin is hypermediated in a totally novel way, reflected and refracted in all the different micro-pronunciations of his surname that percolate across the narrative. His sheer presence makes Jerry’s old summer home seem proto-postmodern, continuous with his space-age office, by virtue of how seamlessly he inserts himself into it.

In modern parlance, then, Pupkin is less a stand-up comedian than an influencer, which gives way to the climax and twist of the film – teaming up with Masha to abduct Jerry, hold him hostage, and only release him once Pupkin has performed a monologue on his show, and the show itself (which is taped several hours before its broadcast time) has aired. In doing so, Pupkin attempts to close the gap between delivery and broadcast, reality and representation, live and taped television, bringing the film to a new threshold of media simultaneity that is not unlike that demanded by terrorist spectacle, explaining why the police can only initially process his actions by speculating whether he might be part of a national terrorist network. In his determination to be simultaneously present as his real and televised self, Rupert shows himself powerful enough to absorb the surveillance anxieties that drove New Hollywood, and again this power paradoxially lies in his mildness, which only intensifies as the climax approaches, divesting the film of the violence that normally closes out a Scorsese crime picture. After all, to work on television, Pupkin’s monologue can only be PG at the very most, and to mirror that Scorsese has also crafted his only suspense film that would be appropriate for conventional network television, at least in an uncut form. Despite the volatile energies that went on behind the scenes, Pupkin’s stand-up is the safest and most staid imaginable.

What makes this stand-up different is the way in which Pupkin incorporates an account of the abduction into his monologue while never once breaking his consummate mildness. For unlike Jerry, he realises the crime will only increase his virality, and see him through the subsequent six years in prison, which indeed it does. When he’s finally released, his monologue has received 87 million views, he’s landed a one million book deal, his life is about to be adapted as a film, and he’s even used his time behind bars to sharpen his stand-up skills. Like a social media influencer who has self-optimised across every platform, Pupkin’s whole life becomes a brand, even or especially his misdeeds, in a forerunner of what Mark Seltzer would go on to describe as America’s “wound culture” – a 90s fascination with the hypermediation of the abject, and the abjection of hypermediation. Conversely, while the stand-up is taking place, Jerry is literally calcified and entombed in the candlelit coven of Masha’s mansion, where he sits wrapped up in tape and paper as she attempts to seduce him. Yet Jerry is even more hollowed out and evacuated by the escape, a scene of pure bathos that only requires him to slap Masha once for her to reveal that her pistol is just a toy. Jerry’s real reckoning comes as he makes his way along the dark street, where he is confronted with a bank of televisions in a store window, all broadcasting Pupkin’s monologue, a hallucinatory hypermediation that confirms beyond all doubt that his time in the spotlight is finally over.

In the end, the genius of The King of Comedy is that it took us close to half a century to see how prescient its vision was. Watching it, the mildness felt so attuned to the low-key affect of scrolling through social media – and just as this kind of scrolling conceals the atavistic core of social media, so The King of Comedy’s sanitary sheen evokes a proportionate violence that has been absorbed, rerouted, disavowed, but not resolved. In its bathetic evacuation and evisceration of New Hollywood angst, in its long prophecy of influencer culture, and in the sheer involution of Pupkin himself, this may be Scorsese’s most violent film, despite – or because of – its aggressive mildness. The closing scene could be straight out of Videodrome, except without even the catharsis of Cronenberg’s body horror, as Scorsese immerses us in this virtual influencer space, on a space age set, where a voiceover introduces Pupkin as the new King of Comedy. Along with After Hours, this is the closest Scorsese ever came to science fiction, and like all great science fiction, it discovers the future already present in the present.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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