Directed by Martin Scorcese. US. 1983.

Talking Pictures alias







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Rupert Pupkin is a comedian looking for a break. Unlike thousands of other aspiring funnymen, however, Rupert is obsessed with the idea of appearing on Jerry Langford's Tonight Show and will stop at nothing until he achieves his goal. Robert de Niro turns in one of his best performances as the driven Mr. Pupkin in Martin Scorcese's The King of Comedy, a film that did not achieve box office success but is now considered by many to be a classic. Not being a fan of de Niro, Scorcese, or Jerry Lewis who plays the Johnny Carson-like talk show host with the utmost seriousness, I was not expecting much. What I found was one of the most daring, innovative, unsettling, and thought provoking films I've seen in a long time.

Rupert is a 34-year old who lives with his mother and dreams of stardom, yet has never taken the preliminary steps necessary to develop his talent as a stand-up comic. Like many in today's mediaocracy, he wants instant gratification and is willing to take extreme measures to force the world to recognize his talent. Instead of trying to find work in a club, he collects autographs and pretends to be a close friend of the world's celebrities. Responding to the suggestion by Langford's production assistant (Shelley Hack), he puts together a sample of his work in his mother's basement surrounded by cardboard replicas of Langford and one of his guests. He fantasizes about Jerry asking him to take over the show for six months and about his being married on the show to his high school sweetheart Rita (Diahnne Abbott) who now works in a local bar.

Like Bill Murray's psychiatric patient in another black comedy about obsession, What About Bob?, Rupert pursues Langford relentlessly trying to secure a spot on his show, even going to the lengths of dropping in unannounced at his summer home with Rita while Jerry is out playing golf. Unceremoniously shown the door, he cooks up a scheme with his insane girlfriend Masha (Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry at gunpoint and demand a spot on his show as payment for his release. The results of this escapade are too juicy to reveal but the film evolves in strange and unexpected ways. De Niro is sufficiently creepy and manic as the aggressive celebrity hound who is determined to get his way. Jerry Lewis is also remarkable as the sad-eyed clown whose off screen persona is the reverse of his on-air image. The King of Comedy was a cutting-edge slap in the face at the television celebrity mania in 1983 but may have been ahead of its time. Sadly, today it is more relevant than ever. 

Howard Schumann
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