– – –
“The King of Comedy: Martin Scorsese of the Eighties” is an essay on Scorsese’s 1983 film “The King of Comedy” – his most underrated film in my opinion.
Author: Alberto D’Onofrio
– – –
It was my first year of college when I was introduced to my favorite film director – Martin Scorsese. Of course, my fascination with the filmmaker spawned from the films: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). These were the films most associated with Scorsese in the context of my films studies courses as they are a good representation of the auteur’s vibrant and recognizable style of filmmaking from his use of popular music, deep character studies, blending of fast-paced and slow-paced cutting, and explicit violence. In my early attraction with filmmaking, these were the five Scorsese pictures I would constantly watch. However, I never seemed to notice that wide gap between 1980 and 1990. This became clear when a very influential film studies teacher of mine mentioned in class, “Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) is, in my opinion, the most interesting character ever portrayed by Robert De Niro”. I could not believe it – within the cast of Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Jimmy Conway, and Sam Rothstein? I had never heard of this film before. Who was Rupert Pupkin? What was so special about The King of Comedy? These questions could have only been answered by watching the film – and I did. It has become one of my favorite Scorsese films and as I study the director’s career, I realize that much attention is focused on his visually stylistic pieces, leaving The King of Comedy underappreciated by mainstream audiences. For example, it is included in many lists of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films.
Fantasy versus Reality
Though The King of Comedy is often described as one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films and collaborations with Robert De Niro, it is also his most disturbing, a film about the desperate and struggling comedian Rupert Pupkin who is willing to do anything to anyone in order to have a chance at the spot light. Its disturbing nature is a result of Scorsese’s uncommon stoic editing and camera work combined with Robert De Niro’s dark-comedic performance. The first encounter Pupkin has with talk-show host Jerry Langford is in the back of a limo. After minutes of constant discussion about Rupert’s career, Langford mentions he’ll contact his assistant in order to listen to this act. Rupert immediately replies, “You know how many times I’ve had this conversation in my head?” He is serious about that line, and as we see in the film, Rupert Pupkin has fantasies of having a relationship with his idol Jerry Langford and being a successful comic. Scorsese’s decision was to not treat fantasy and reality differently – he designed them as realistic as possible, making them live up to the dark comedic aspect of the film. There are sequences that are eerie to watch as a deranged Pupkin is reenacting conversations with others by himself whether they are shot as solely fantasy, reality, or both, and it is Scorsese’s filmic decisions that effectively achieve this.
The first fantasy sequence is shotin two separate locations to set up Rupert’s reality, a man who lives in his mother’s basement. It is a conversation between Pupkin and Langford during a lunch meeting. In Rupert’s fantasy, Langford is asking him to take over the Jerry Langford Show for six weeks. Of course, in his fantasy, Pupkin acts like a big shot and belittles Langford. The fantasy scene cuts back midway through Rupert’s dialogue to the reality of him reenacting the conversation in his basement. He finishes his line of dialogue and it immediately cuts back to the restaurant to capture Jerry’s response. During Rupert’s dialogue, he is also shownbeing interrupted by his mother, an off-screen voice. This forces Rupert to keep on repeating his lines desperately as he tries to ignore his mother. Finally, Rupert gives in, and accepts Jerry’s favor. He ends with a cheap joke while he and Jerry laugh away. It cuts back to Rupert laughing hysterically in his basement, but while he laughs, he moves quickly into Jerry’s position and laughs again. This is the only time in the film where Scorsese shows the audience the two settings of Rupert’s fantasies, and the rest are either shown in the fantasy world or in reality.
The second fantasy sequence is of Rupert reenacting a talk show conversation with Jerry Langford and Liza Minnelli. Although instead of showing what Rupert is imagining in his mind, Scorsese only presents the scene in the reality of his basement, therefore Rupert is shown sitting in the middle of two cardboard cutouts of Langford and Minnelli.
The third fantasy sequence is when Rupert is recording his material for Jerry’s assistant. It is a very odd sequence as he is interacting in front of a large black and white mural of an audience. As he starts his monologue, his voice is drowned out by simulated laughter of the audience members and the camera slowly tracks back, revealing a surreal, cubic space. It does not look like his home, but it did appear real when the camera stayed in first position to capture a portion of the mural. Here, Scorsese is blurring fantasy elements with reality to build from the first fantasy sequence where he clearly distinguished both instances.
This leads to the next two fantasy sequences in Jerry’s office where he is praising Rupert’s work and in Jerry’s talk show where Rupert marries the woman of his dreams. They are presented only in the fantasy world. It is soon after this point in the film where Rupert becomes aggressive and takes big risks to get his meeting with Jerry Langford. He breaks into the offices only to get kicked out by security and even breaks into Jerry’s home. The only times Scorsese shows Rupert and Jerry together after the beginning of the film is in the fantastical realm of Rupert’s mind which makes the scene between Jerry and Rupert in the Langford residence very uncomfortable. When Langford finally arrives only to see Rupert in his own home, he is obviously furious but oddly enough, Rupert acts as if they have already been friends for a long time – it may be so in Rupert’s fantasy world but it is so bizarre to watch him actually believe it and be so convinced about the situation.
Bizarre is the appropriate word to describe these scenes, and Scorsese also makes use of this strange nature in completely realistic sequences such as Rupert’s dinner date with Rita Keane. The scene is a simple two-shot conversation between Rupert and Rita. Though in the middle of the scene, a man walks by their table and sits at the back of the restaurant facing Rita. As a delusional Rupert begins speaking about him being “the new king of comedy”, the man in the back laughs and mimics every hand gesture Rupert makes. Scorsese shot this in order to make the audience aware of this odd character in the background. When the camera is on Rita, there’s a shallow depth-of-field, revealing little of the background but when the camera is on Rupert, there is a recognizably larger depth-of-field making the man behind Rupert more apparent. Even in a realist setting, Scorsese finds a way to add a small, yet strange idea to relate to the dark-comedy tone of the film.
The last act of the film involves Rupert kidnapping Langford at gunpoint in order to perform on The Jerry Langford Show. He does perform at the show but is sent to prison for his crime. The ending treats Jerry as a “king”; millions of people tuned in for his performance, books of his memoir are being sold and after being released from prison, he becomes the host of his own show. Scorsese has blurred the lines between reality and fantasy so effectively that this ending is debatable as to whether it is real or just another wacky vision in Rupert’s demented mind. To give my opinion, I believe it is a fantasy, but after each viewing, I generate a more significant reason to defend my argument. At first, the simple reason was that Rupert is dressed all in red. After another viewing, I argued that he does not speak to the audience. Finally, my latest argument is that when the announcer introduces Rupert, he constantly repeats a variation of, “Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentleman, Rupert Pupkin!” It is as if Rupert is in his basement and his mother is constantly interrupting, causing him to repeat everything in order to reenact the fantasy without disruption, much like in the film’s first fantasy sequence.
The fact that audiences are debating about the film’s ending is a testament to how much thought Scorsese put into designing the fantasy sequences throughout the film to draw a thin line between fantasy and reality. Considering the amount of analysis a film can solely have on its fantasy versus reality sequences, it is surprising how underrated the film is and how it was critically panned at the time of its release.
A “Scorsese” Movie
The King of Comedy was the next Scorsese film after Raging Bull, which was (at that point) the director’s most visually stylized film in his career – merely based on fight sequences alone! Even Thelma Schoonmaker admittedly said that the film won Best Editing for just the fight sequences! (Schwartz, 6) Scorsese’s previous films Taxi Driver and Mean Streets had a distinct style as well for the young filmmaker. This may have been a possibility for The King of Comedy’s lack of appreciation – the lack of “Scorsese”. As Roger Ebert states, “The King of Comedy is the kind of film that makes you want to go and see a Scorsese movie” (Ebert, 84).
Roger Ebert is accurate that it is by far, his least stylized film. The camera is still throughout much of the film, and the editing is limiting. However, it is inaccurate to say that it incorporates absolutely zero traits of the auteur. The film opens with a sequence outside of Jerry Langford’s theater that demonstrates stylistic elements to justify this as a Scorsese film. Jerry walks out into the crowd in slow motion, and is juxtaposed with the quick white flashes of the light bulbs (a stylistic element that spawned from the fight sequences in Raging Bull). The freeze-frame is a well known Scorsese editing technique and is used when Masha is frantically trying to get to Jerry Langford in the limo – her hands are still in the blind light and the opening credits roll. Throughout the film, Scorsese makes use of low-quality video footage to capture the “look” of television, the way home audiences would see The Jerry Langford Show. Scorsese is known for his use of different media. In Mean Streets, Scorsese used Super 8 footage while in Raging Bull he incorporated still photographs. The color red is distinctly everywhere in The King of Comedy! Neck-ties, the carpet on the steps outside of Langford’s city home, the waiters jackets, the walls in his basement, the walls of Jerry’s apartment, and finally, Rupert’s full-red suit in the ending. Inspired by The Red Shoes (Pressburger, Powell, 1948) it is a color frequently used by Scorsese. For him, as a Catholic, it represents the blood of Jesus Christ and violence. It is a dominant color that draws the audience’s attention. It also symbolizes danger, and immoral behavior, appropriate qualities to relate to Rupert Pupkin (LoBrutto, 29).
Conclusion: Scorsese and the Eighties
Although The King of Comedy was a change in pace for Scorsese and his energetic style, audiences had to become used to the simple, yet effective Martin Scorsese in his following films in the eighties: After Hours (1985), The Color of Money (1986), and his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). His low-key and low budget films of the eighties actually developed from failed attempts to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Before The King of Comedy, Scorsese asked De Niro to play Jesus and he was not interested – he wanted to try a comedy (Baxter, 219). Scorsese then could not get Last Temptation financed so he did the low-budget comedy, After Hours (Variety, 1). Scorsese then made The Color of Money, a film that made it possible to make The Last Temptation of Christ since it showed that Martin Scorsese can make profitable films (Schickel, 164). Last Temptation still developed as a low-budget film with a very limited shooting schedule of fifty-five days, so again, Scorsese depended on a minimal aesthetic style to end his string of eighties films.
What is interesting about The King of Comedy and the remainder of the eighties for Scorsese is that he was able to demonstrate a wide range of film aesthetics from stylist to minimal pieces while still being effective in its own way. Today, we know the director as a bigger-budget filmmaker who is bringing us entertaining, yet provoking pieces such as The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). When recently asked about if he would ever go back to his roots of shooting low budget, Scorsese answered, “Absolutely. I’m dying to. And there are two projects that I have in mind that way”. Only time will tell what Scorsese has in store for us!
Epilogue – Film Criticism Position
I chose The King of Comedy as a film criticism topic because it is often an underappreciated and rarely discussed Scorsese film among the general audience. Since some critics, like Roger Ebert, believed that it was “not really a Scorsese” film, I took the vantage point of the director’s influence on the style of the film even if it was minimalist compared to his previous work. Scorsese still had to make decisions on how to shoot the film, and I think he chose the right aesthetic for the subject matter, therefore I believe an auteur stance is interesting for The King of Comedy. It is also a style that is relevant to Scorsese in the eighties, an idea I wanted to conclude with. In addition, I reference the director’s other works as well to compare and contrast, while also mentioning films that he is inspired by.
After Hours. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., 1985.
The Aviator. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.
Baxter, John. De Niro: A Biography. London: HarperCollinsEntertainment, 2003. Print.
Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal Pictures, 1995.
The Color of Money. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Buena Vista Distribution, 1986.
Ebert, Roger. Scorsese by Ebert. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008. Print.
Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., 1990.
The King of Comedy. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1983.
The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal Pictures, 1988.
LoBrutto, Vincent. Martin Scorsese: A Biography. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.
Mean Streets. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros., 1976.
Raging Bull. Dir. Martin Scorsese. United Artists, 1980.
The Red Shoes. Dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. General Film Distributors, 1948.
Schickel, Richard. Conversations with Scorsese. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.
Schwartz, David. A Pinewood Dialogue With Thelma Schoonmaker. Museum of the Moving Image. Nov. 24, 2002.
Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Columbia Pictures, 1976.
Variety Staff. “After Hours”. Variety. 1985.
The Wolf of Wall Street. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2013.