The King of Comedy (1983)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
20th Century Fox, $19.98

The star of The King of Comedy, aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), is someone you don’t want to know, and he’s determined to change that. A 34-year-old who has never recovered from the indignities of high school, Pupkin tends to attract people’s attention only when they stumble over his name – Pipkin, Pumpkin and Pupkus are just a few variations – but he’s convinced that a few minutes in the spotlight on The Jerry Langford Show will make everything right. When he isn’t churning around Manhattan and contriving ways to slip in through a crack in Langford’s office, Pupkin spends hours rehearsing his own, imaginary talk show in his New Jersey basement and fantasizing about the day when Langford (Jerry Lewis) will beg him for favors. Pupkin soon gets his chance, but not quite in the way he expected.

Released in 1983, The King of Comedy capped a string of rich collaborations between De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. In fact, De Niro had shown Paul Zimmermann’s script to Scorsese almost 10 years earlier, in 1974. In an interview on this DVD, Scorsese recalls that he had trouble relating to the material at first, largely because he was an unknown at that time. But "after Raging Bull," Scorsese says, "I began to understand certain things [about celebrity]…. Ultimately, what do [people like Rupert] want from you? Is he more dangerous than Travis Bickle? Maybe."

Indeed, it’s hard to know quite what to make of Pupkin, a full-blown nerd whose unflagging, thinly veiled hostility lends the entire film a sense of unease. Whereas Bickle’s diary entries created a window onto his frustration and rage, Pupkin’s only "inner monologue" is the pointless patter of his imaginary talk show, which he garnishes with musical cues and recorded applause. Pupkin’s only friend appears to be the equally aggressive Langford devotee Masha (Sandra Bernhard), but their alliance is one of mutual selfishness and desperation.

Thanks to Lewis, whose performance is a model of pure body language, the funniest aspect of The King of Comedy is actually Langford. A character obviously modeled on Johnny Carson (who reportedly turned down the role), Langford is a seasoned showbiz veteran who remains absolutely unflappable, no matter what the crisis. In one of the film’s neat ironies, he also reveals himself to be as contemptuous of others as Pupkin, and as isolated. (Another irony is that when Pupkin finally gets his moment in the sun, his monologue – like Langford’s – is utterly banal.)

The King of Comedy was shot by Fred Schuler, ASC, who had compiled some diverse credits as a New York-based camera operator on features such as Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Annie Hall and Manhattan. Fox has given The King of Comedy a beautiful transfer, and although the disc is short on extras (a 20-minute interview with Scorsese and Bernhard, the theatrical trailer and a Canadian spot), it feels complete.

Scorsese recalls with chagrin that as he was preparing to go out on New Year’s Eve in 1983, he caught an Entertainment Tonight tidbit that proclaimed The King of Comedy "the flop of the year." Despite the fact that ET’s attention to celebrity bellybutton lint is in part what his film satirized, Scorsese was disheartened. "That," he says, "was when I realized the era of the personal film was over in Hollywood."

 – Rachael Bosley

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.