THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Paul D. Zimmerman

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack & Tony Randall

KING OF COMEDY is arguably the most unusual film in Martin Scorsese’s career. Though it’s mainly considered a dark comedy, the film borders on the razor’s edge of becoming an out-and-out stalker thriller. The script for this film had been floating around since the mid-70’s, with Robert De Niro trying to push Scorsese into taking on this project. When production problems plagued early efforts to get this film made, Scorsese decided to direct (probably spurred on by his friendship with De Niro). What resulted is a film that has been celebrated in certain circles, has utterly confused others, and has been off the radar for most. Having finally watched KING OF COMEDY, I appreciate the overall satirical message of the film…but find that pacing problems weigh this one down quite a bit.

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Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian, has ambitions for fame and fortune. However, this is unfortunate because Pupkin has neither the talent, nor the material to support his would-be career. This doesn’t stop the unfunny hack from practicing imagined television appearances with successful talk show host Jerry Langford. After a chance meeting, Pupkin asks Langford about how to make it big. The successful star gives the desperate amateur comedian advice and even a brief chance for success. Unfortunately, Pupkin’s encounter with Langford becomes an obsession leading to radical behavior in order to follow delusional dreams. Pupkin’s course of action is drastic and not exactly legal.

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Though it’s billed as a comedy and contains a number of funny scenes throughout, KING OF COMEDY becomes downright creepy in areas. The laughs are definitely of the darker variety. However, many moments take ugly turns. What might have made for wacky hijinks in a 1950’s Jerry Lewis comedy becomes cringe-worthy and awkward. To say that this movie is uncomfortable would be an understatement. Early scenes of De Niro’s Pupkin performing in shabbily constructed stage in his home, all while yelling at his interrupting mother, are especially unnerving. Hallucinations and day dreams only reveal ever more about the psychosis and sociopathic nature of our main character. While the first half of this film seems very much grounded in disturbing dark comedy territory, the second half becomes far too much of a stalker thriller by the climax. The film also seems to run a bit too long in getting to its final punchline. The pacing problems don’t appear until the second half when things begin to wander off into pointless moments (such as an argument over a sweater that lasts for about five minutes).

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Pupkin isn’t what you’d call a likable character, but De Niro makes him into someone worth watching. This nutso comic with delusions of grandeur reminded me a bit of Lou Bloom in NIGHTCRAWLER. Both characters are sociopathic individuals with huge ambition and viciously claw their way to their goals. What’s highly ironic is Jerry Lewis, a ridiculous comedy star of the 1950’s and 60’s, starring as Jerry Langford. Though I don’t necessarily care for his films, Lewis seems to be a relatively down-to-earth guy in behind-the-scenes interviews that you can find online. Jerry Langford seems very much like a personal role for Lewis and the dramatic chops are certainly there to make him into a convincing character. I sympathized for Langford and felt he did far more than was required for Pupkin…which makes the psychopath’s behavior that much more frustrating. While the film glides with solid momentum whenever De Niro or Lewis are on the screen, it moves at a glacially tedious pace during any scene with Sandra Bernhard as her totally useless character. Her character’s jokes are unfunny, her personality is annoying and she just detracts from the film as a whole.

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KING OF COMEDY delivers great performances from Robert De Niro (one of my favorite actors) and Jerry Lewis in an apparently close-to-home role, while including great social commentary in the ending. The entire movie is basically a sociopathic drama with laughs. The film suffers from pacing problems when it enters all-out creepy thriller territory in the last third and focuses far too much on Sandra Bernhard’s annoying character. KING OF COMEDY is definitely one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser efforts, but has enough good qualities to warrant a single viewing.

Grade: B-

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