Bucket List Movie #480: The King of Comedy (1982)
Today's BLM, 1982's The King of Comedy, is a damned chilling story. It's not a horror film, but it may as well be, because, much like Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd, it is a terrifying look at people who will do anything- anything- for their 15 minutes of fame. These people care little whether they are worthy of recognition, who suffers for it, or the havoc they wreak to attain it. They will be noticed, come Hell or high water, and everyone will be sorry for overlooking them.
Another reason Scorsese's scathing dark comedy is so soil-your-pants scary? Because 33 years later, nothing has changed; if anything, things are much, much worse. Thanks to reality talent competitions, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and pretty much any electronic device you can get your hands on, desperate clingers-on, no matter how obnoxious, untalented, or just plain weird, can get their day in the limelight. Anyone remember tone-deaf William Hung on American Idol? There was a time, a generation or two ago, when he would have been laughed off the stage, disappeared, and been forgotten the next day. Instead, he scored a record deal, released an album, and received a brief taste of fame because of, not in spite of, his utter lack of shame and talent. Then there was YouTube darling Rebecca "Friday" Black a few years later, who brutalized our eardrums and intellect with her, um, "singing" and, uh, "lyrics". We used to sneer at and ignore ridiculous attention mongers; now, we praise them for "following their dreams".
That's a motto that society drills into us at an early age, isn't it? "Follow your dreams". Everyone's told to "dream big", "aim high", and, worst of all, "everybody's special". We are constantly told to shun ordinariness, the implication being that ordinary people don't matter and have somehow failed at life. No one ever tells their kids that happiness isn't, nor should be, measured in fame, fortune, and awards. That even if they don't become extraordinary, that they're still okay the way they are. We're told to "be ourselves", but who really means that? What if you're not special? What if you are mediocre and/or not meant for greater things?
Mind you, I am not supporting "tall poppy syndrome"; I don't believe in encouraging mediocrity, nor hindering high achievers. I thoroughly believe in having a positive attitude and doing one's best, but the sad truth is everyone isn't going to have a remarkable life. If they were, then words like "remarkable" would no longer have meaning. We fear insignificance, but to the rest of the world, most of us are insignificant. I'd be lying if I said this isn't difficult to accept, but we do matter to our loved ones, and even if only a handful of people notice and mourn our eventual deaths, isn't that enough?
Ah, but no one wants to admit this, and lack of acceptance for your own shortcomings is what gives root to delusions of grandeur, an ugly sense of entitlement, and a dangerous narcissism that will eventually careen out of control, leaving piles of destruction in its wake.
Okay, that's enough sanctimonious posturing for now, on with The King of Comedy. Scorsese and his BFF Robert de Niro team up yet again to weave yet another ragged yarn about yet another unlovable misfit in the City that Never Sleeps.
Rupert Pupkin (de Niro) is basically Travis Bickle redux. He's better groomed, but hardly better dressed (used car salesmen would mock his wardrobe), and instead of obsessing over women and the slime of the streets, Rupert has an even more dangerous obsession: himself. Rupert dreams of being a stand-up comedian, even though he's 34 (I deeply suspect he's shaving off a few years), still lives at home with his long-suffering mother, has never had a single gig, and tells the kind of jokes Henny Youngman would roll his eyes at. Rupert is a huge fan of late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, surprisingly good), and, after "rescuing" Jerry from friend and fellow obsessive fan Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Rupert chats up Jerry, hoping to score a stand-up spot on his show. Jerry, despite his obvious discomfort at this pushy fan, gives him curt but sound advice about building a career from the bottom up. In a gesture of self-preservation and half-hearted politeness, Jerry tells Rupert to call him.
Bad move. Rupert, who has as much social adeptness as he has talent, instead makes a daily routine of dropping into Jerry's office building, harassing the receptionists, leaving his tape of material, and when that gets him nowhere, he actually drops by Jerry's country home (no, I don't know why the security is so poor, either). Jerry, disgusted by this intrusion, tells off Rupert and kicks him out.
"Well I'm sorry. I made a mistake," Rupert whines.
"So did Hitler!" Jerry fires back.
Another bad move. With Masha's help, Rupert kidnaps Jerry, holds him hostage, and hijacks a spot on the show. The execs have no choice but to acquiesce; after all, their boss's life is on the line, and Rupert is obviously very serious and very crazy. While Rupert readies himself for his big moment, a tied-up Jerry suffers the psychotic flirtations of Masha, who has probably terrorized more people and boiled more bunnies than Alex Forrest could ever aspire to.
It's best that you discover for yourself how Rupert fares on his TV debut, how Jerry finally escapes, and how everything comes together by the final frame. I will confess that The King of Comedy contains the only instance of justified violence against a woman by a man I've ever seen in a movie. There, I said it. I'll hand in my feminist card.
Even though it was not a funny, easy movie for me to watch, I did love The King of Comedy, because it didn't play to my expectations. I was expecting Rupert to be framed as a scrappy outcast who only needs a chance, and for Jerry to be painted as the villain, the mean ol' rich man who squashes people's dreams and doesn't deserve what he has. In other words, I was expecting It Happened on 5th Avenue all over again.
Neither is the case, and this I have no problem spoiling for you all. Rupert is not a sympathetic character: he is calculating, short-sighted, deranged, and selfish. Another film came to mind while watching The King of Comedy: All About Eve. Like Eve Harrington before him, Rupert takes the path of absolutely no resistance to get what he wants. Rupert feels the world owes him recognition, not because of his perceived comic genius, but by the mere fact that he exists, and he is bitter that no one seems to agree. History is clogged with sociopaths who destroy or takes lives because of this mindset.
Similarly, like Margo Channing, Jerry isn't perfect, but he is never once portrayed as the antagonist. Any less than nice behavior he displays is due to the pressure of work and fame. Before you sarcastically grab your violins, keep in mind the first scene in the movie, where Jerry is mobbed by fans, has Masha accost him in his limo, only to have Rupert rescue him and bully him into a conversation, all in ten minutes or less. When you all leave work… you leave work, that's it. As a result of his celebrity, Jerry's life is isolated; he lives alone (save for a cute little dog), has no friends or wife, and has been at the game long enough to know how difficult it can be. Yet he got where he is through hard work and aptitude, and he accepts the highs and lows that show business offers. His head is on straight, he's the real deal.
Scorcese was a well-established director by the time The King of Comedy was made, and obviously knew firsthand how cutthroat Hollywood can be, to say nothing of the Rupert Pupkins he's probably had to deal with. It is refreshing, then, that his sympathies clearly lie with Jerry, a true professional who has a life of his own, and is being menaced by a human leach who demands success be given to him on a golden platter.
Yet society is full of Rupert Pupkins, and they don't appear to be going away any time soon. Maybe, just maybe, we should ease up on the whole "follow your dreams" mantra, and instead tell our children to be decent, productive people, and that they aren't owed a thing by anybody. As much as it pains me to say it, perhaps we should dare to tell someone they suck at something when they suck at something. Sure, it will hurt, but it just might be a positive step in ensuring that there will be one less Rupert in the world, polluting humanity with their lack thereof.