Laughing Screaming
Nick Pinkerton on The King of Comedy

Martin Scorsese is an easy laugh. Awards-show directors often cut to him for reaction shots that sell a punchline, because he can predictably be found with his head tossed back, flashing his big, white, Teddy Roosevelt–like grin. One scene in his 1983 The King of Comedy harnesses this quality: Scorsese cameos as the director of late-night chat hour The Jerry Langford Show, conferring with emergency guest host Tony Randall, and sure enough he starts cracking up over one-liners written by the man who’s hijacked the show.

Outside of Ken Loach, has any director not known for comedy cast more comedians than Scorsese? There is, of course, the strange case of Albert Brooks’s presence in Taxi Driver, his first film role, or stand-up Sandra Bernhard’s big break in The King of Comedy. Then we have Friars Club roast fixture Don Rickles playing Ace Rothstein underling Billy Sherbert in Casino, and Henny Youngman himself live at the Copacabana as the capper of the famous kitchen-door-to-centerstage tracking shot in Goodfellas. Raging Bull also features a trip to the Copa, though working the crowd this time is Bernie Allen, the second straight-man “Allen” to Steve Rossi in the duo Allen and Rossi—you’ll remember him calling an audience member a “bald-headed fag” in a stage-whisper aside. (The casual put-down is the basic unit of exchange in Scorsesian macho patter, from here right through to The Departed.) There’s an element of foreshadowing to Allen’s appearance in Raging Bull, for by the end of the film Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro), once the middleweight champion of the world, will be reduced to the status of a cut-rate nightclub act, playing far less prestigious rooms than the Copa, mixing shtick with Shakespeare and the back-of-the-car monologue from On the Waterfront.

The story of Scorsese’s next film after Raging Bull, also his next collaboration with De Niro, hinges on another backseat scene. As the film begins, Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), a wannabe comedian, infiltrates the private towncar of late-night funnyman Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin calls himself a stand-up, but it seems very likely that he has never performed in front of a crowd. He prods Jerry for advice, but when Jerry starts in with the usual talk about hard work and elbow grease—“You gotta start from the bottom”—it becomes clear that what Pupkin really wants is to be waved past the velvet rope, a shortcut chance at a big break on Jerry’s show without the hassle of auditioning. Pupkin worships celebrities generally, and in particular Langford, and like many people obsessed with show business, he hasn’t the faintest idea how it works. The King of Comedy is his movie, the story of a man who at no point in his life coulda been a contender, making sure that he gets a title shot regardless.

Pupkin hones his routine in the basement of his mother’s house in Union City, New Jersey—that is, when she’s not yelling at him to keep the noise down. Later, in front of a live studio audience, Pupkin jokes about his mother’s alcoholism, and the fact that she’s been dead for nine years—more than once we will have occasion to note that he is an unreliable narrator. That audience is Pupkin’s dream, the thing that will vindicate a lifetime of snubs. He rehearses for them nightly in a mock-up of a talk-show set that defies the modest dimensions of his home, hobnobbing with two-dimensional cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minnelli. (An inside joke, for she was De Niro’s costar in Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York.) From his doorstep Pupkin can see the spires of Manhattan, and at thirty-four, he’s not getting any closer to them.

Pupkin works as a courier by day, always overdressed in a three-piece suit with cuff links, as though any moment he might be called up from the ranks of nobodies to guest-host Langford. In the course of The King of Comedy his name, “often misspelled and mispronounced,” will be variously mangled as Pumpkin, Pupnik, Pipkin, Prupkin, and Potkin, variations that make him sound like the absurd protagonist of a Gogol story. After work, Pupkin congregates with the army of autograph collectors who wait outside the stage door of Langford’s show for known names, all the while insisting on his basic difference from the other fame hunters. (“It’s not my whole life,” he petulantly comments, protesting too much.) Among this army of the condemned is Masha (Bernhard), a born-rich Upper West Side chick whose obsession with Langford verges on erotomania—it’s through “saving” Jerry from Masha that aspirant Pupkin gets that royal audience with the King of Comedy.

The title The King of Comedy appears over a freeze-frame of Masha’s outstretched hands clawing at Jerry through the window of his car, in which she’s just ambushed him. This image, accompanied by Ray Charles’s rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” establishes a contrast that becomes the defining dynamic of the film, inside and outside—how the inside is imagined by outsiders like Pupkin and Masha, who believe their entire unhappy lives would be fixed if only they could get inside; how that same inside functions as a cell for someone like Langford, sentenced to lifelong imprisonment by his fame. It’s all here up front, just as it’s in the selection of “Wonderful Remark” for the closing credits, with Van Morrison crooning of “clinging to some other rainbow / While we’re standing waiting outside in the cold.” Masha, meanwhile, will be a major player in what happens in between—later she helps Pupkin kidnap him, Pupkin’s last resort to ransom his way into a stand-up set on The Jerry Langford Show.

Pupkin’s defining feelings of isolation and exclusion—not to speak of his undignified name—make him a cousin of sorts to De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, though the films deviate in the way the camera treats them. There is a famous moment where we watch Bickle, on the payphone in the lobby of his building, being rebuffed for the dozenth time by Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, the blonde dream girl with whom he irreparably blew his chance. As Bickle continues with his sheepish entreaties, the camera, unprompted by any on-screen action, begins to track away from him, stopping to look past a bank of elevators and at the street beyond. It’s a bold announcement of authorial presence—Pauline Kael dismissed it as an “Antonioni pirouette”—although the motive here seems to be common courtesy, as though this rejection has become too humiliating, and that it’s been decided that Bickle, in his disgrace, should be afforded a measure of privacy.

Rupert Pupkin is a character every bit as hapless with the opposite sex as Bickle is. He ineptly courts an old high school classmate, Rita, whom he discovers working as a bartender, and she is played by Diahnne Abbott, also the woman behind the porno-theater concessions counter who Bickle tries in vain to hit on in Taxi Driver. (And, at the time, De Niro’s wife.) In The King of Comedy, however, the camera never looks away from the protagonist’s failures—even when (quite frequently) we wish it would. Its sights are fixed on a deeply discomfiting performance. Even when in intimate situations, such as his first date with Rita, Pupkin is incapable of human interaction on a person-to-person scale. His broad gestures are meant to register with the back row of a studio audience. Contrary to Jerry’s earlier advice about the importance of a relaxed delivery, Pupkin doesn’t deliver his punchlines so much as pounce on them. When he gives his “Every king needs a queen” proposal to Rita, he isn’t speaking to her but to an invisible camera just behind her, and to a nonexistent army of armchair spectators beyond it. The more complicated entanglements of sex seem to be lost on Pupkin entirely: he escapes into a dream of being married to Rita on live national television—in the presence of Dr. Joyce Brothers, naturally—but when their real date comes to an end, he leaves her with a chaste kiss on the cheek and the dorky admonition “Go to sleep right away!”

Rita’s response to Pupkin’s offer of morganatic marriage is a kind of spooked bemusement, but there’s no shoulder so cold that it can discourage him. Emboldened by Langford’s polite brush-off promise that someone in his employ will listen to his material, Pupkin arrives for three straight days at the Langford Show offices, and for three straight days tries to maneuver his way past Miss Long (Shelley Hack), the assistant to Langford’s producer. When summoned to see Pupkin in the waiting room, Miss Long emerges and disappears from a blue corridor lined with backlit glass bricks, a passageway that appears to us, as it must to him, like some guarded portal to another, better world. (The production design is credited to the legendary Boris Leven, who began as a sketch artist for Paramount in 1933, did signature work on Giant and West Side Story, and began to work with Scorsese on New York, New York.) When Pupkin finally breaches protocol and makes his way to the other side of that corridor, of course, all he discovers are cubicles.

It’s hard to say whether Pupkin doesn’t know a “No” when he hears one, or whether he chooses not to heed them, but he’s speeding past all of the usual avenues of professional dues paying and social niceties in pursuit of his ultimate goal. The squirmy comedy of The King of Comedy is based in mutual miscomprehension: Pupkin doesn’t seem to understand that he’s politely being told to go away, while the people whom he badgers, waylays, and wheedlingly harangues don’t know until it’s too late that they are dealing with a crazy person. Pupkin’s good-byes are endless, Columbo-like affairs. He refuses to relinquish the attention of any person of importance that he meets until he receives the answer that he wants from them—or at least something that he can interpret to mean what he wants it to mean. They’re usually dying to escape him, and sometimes you are, too, but he keeps his foot firmly lodged in the door.

Perhaps the most painful scene in a movie full of them has Pupkin and an oblivious Rita getting dressed to the nines and taking the Long Island Rail Road to “drop in” on Jerry at his weekend home, a big production undertaken on the pretext of an intimacy that doesn’t actually exist. It begins with Pupkin feeding a line of b.s. to Langford’s flustered Chinese butler (many of the movie’s best scenes involve Pupkin trying to bluff his way around intermediaries, like the hilarious Kim Chan here, or Margo Winkler as the receptionist at The Jerry Langford Show’s offices). It ends with Jerry demolishing Pupkin’s confidant-to-the-stars act in front of the girl he’s trying so desperately to impress, though Pupkin hangs on to his delusion with such unflappable, grinning tenacity that you can only conclude that he actually believes the line he’s been feeding Rita. (Pupkin seems completely untouched by self-knowledge, and there is scarcely a moment when his backslapping, desperately cheery façade cracks.) Compared with this horror show, with the spectacle of Pupkin’s forced informality and his lead-balloon attempts at tension-cutting levity, the head-in-the-vice treatment from Casino seems like a scalp massage.

*****

The phrase ahead of its time is a problematic one, as it is premised on the idea that any given time has a single defining attribute. Applied to The King of Comedy it’s even trickier—have we really caught up with Scorsese and De Niro’s film? While it’s true that the comic art of the awkward pause and extravagant social faux pas, as seen in The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm and their hosts of imitators, appears in a fully worked-out form in The King of Comedy, how often is it used to plumb such depths of desperation? Aside from superficial adjustments for changing fashion, today’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon presents a boilerplate, inoffensive late-night entertainment package not far from The Jerry Langford Show. The King of Comedy is prophetic in things other than its brand of humor, for it seems to anticipate much to come: the melancholy case of Margaret Mary May, the woman who stalked David Letterman for years before committing suicide; the postretirement disappearance from the public eye by Johnny Carson (a partial model for Langford); and the increasingly visible cantankerousness of Lewis himself.

Writing about Lewis’s eighty-sixth birthday celebration at the 92nd Street Y in Tablet Magazine, a Theater of Cruelty as all of Lewis’s public appearances must necessarily be, J. Hoberman identified a section of the audience composed of “bridge-and-tunnel Pupkins of all genders.” Certainly Rupert would’ve been front and center—his prize possession is his autograph book, which contains the signatures of Marilyn Monroe (from the set of The Misfits) and Ernie Kovacs. Given that Monroe and Kovacs both died in 1962, you can surmise that Pupkin has been hounding celebrities for quite some time. Later, when he and Rita are uninvited guests at Jerry’s house, the camera lingers on a framed photo of a bright-eyed twelve-year-old Langford/Lewis, time enough to contemplate that he and Pupkin were once not so very different, two little boys from New Jersey with a thirst for attention and validation. The King of Comedy’s Jersey-born screenwriter, Paul D. Zimmerman, says the film’s subject is “a desperate need to exist publicly, which is so American.” This is echoed in something that Chris Fujiwara wrote in a 2008 piece about the films of Jerry Lewis, which might be applied to Pupkin: “In Lewis’s work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present.”

Pupkin is, in this respect, a man-child naïf of the sort that Lewis specialized in, but at loose in the very real world. (The movie is full of perfectly cast bit players, like Chan and Winkler, as well as strategically deployed nonprofessionals.) The characterization of Jerry Langford, by contrast, hinges on the tense coexistence of the public Jerry and the private Langford/Lewis, evident in the handful of scenes Langford has to himself. Most notable is a setpiece that follows Jerry, practicing that particular floating strut of his, gliding out of his building and through the streets of midtown Manhattan. It has something of the quality of a musical number at first, with Jerry the lead dancer and magnet of attention, the passersby reduced to appreciative onlookers and grateful recipients of his well-rehearsed one-liners, but the air of unreality is rudely interrupted when he declines to greet a lady’s nephew over a pay phone, and her adulation turns to vitriol: “You should only get cancer; I hope you get cancer!”

Little wonder, assuming such incidents are a regular occurrence, that there is a barely suppressed nastiness in Langford, who has been warped by fame as surely as Pupkin has been warped by want of it. This nastiness is briefly given vent when, once liberated from the cocoon of packing tape that his kidnappers encase him in, free and totally out of harm’s way, Langford quite egregiously claps Masha across the face. That Langford is not particularly fond of people is evident when we see him at rest in his expansive Manhattan apartment, half-watching an old black-and-white movie on one of his three televisions (presumably one dedicated to each network) and eating a Spartan dinner, alone save for the company of a lapdog and insulated from the outside world by all of that square footage. It’s the aerie of an agoraphobe, suitable to another Scorsese protagonist of twenty years hence, Howard Hughes. On TV is the pickpocketing scene from Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street—it’s later mirrored when Rita, in the process of being thrown out of Langford’s Long Island manor, stuffs a tchotchke into her purse out of spite. (For Kael, overreaching, this is the telltale scene that gives the game away: “this movie reduces everybody to crud.”) And Langford’s “It’s lonely at the top”–epitomizing apartment is itself a callback to 1950s American cinema, laid out like Lonesome Rhodes’s penthouse in Elia Kazan’s 1957 satire of television’s cult of personality, A Face in the Crowd.

Even people who’ve never heard the word cinephile know that Martin Scorsese is one. Judging from much of the existing writing about Scorsese, you might get the impression that references to other movies exist in his films solely to create a version of the scavenger-hunt games on the backs of cereal boxes. Scorsese isn’t just overlaying his memory of film history onto stories of American life, however, but integrating these references into his narratives, in so doing showing the manner in which American public life is cinematic spectacle, a megaproduction in which we all imagine ourselves playing parts. (In this, if in little else, he resembles Fassbinder, whose German lumpenproles are always half-in, half-out of a Hollywood daydream.) Scorsese’s films abound with performers, including entertainers (New York, New York, The Last Waltz, No Direction Home, Shine a Light, Public Speaking), sportsmen (Raging Bull, The Color of Money), faces of corporations (Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street), or people who, by dint of their position, are always in the public eye (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Gangs of New York, The Aviator). Even the parochial Little Italy of Scorsese’s early features, where everyone’s proverbial dirty laundry is hung out to dry in the same courtyard, is a kind of public theater. The King of Comedy, along with Taxi Driver, belongs to a small subset in Scorsese’s body of work—movies about performers without a stage.

Travis Bickle finally gets his headlines through bloodshed, and Pupkin at least tries to convince people that he might head down the same route: “Jerry Langford is dead,” he assures the FBI men who pour into the network offices, if his debut isn’t nationally broadcast. Instead, Pupkin kills in his late-night debut. His success is wildly improbable, not least given the nature of his material. His monologue is a pitch-black confessional, with jokes about his abusive, drunken parents, his sister’s sex change, and the bullying that he suffered growing up in Clifton, New Jersey. None of this seems likely to have been written by a man who’s presumably been modeling his routine after the work of middlebrow family-friendly entertainers, and you have to wonder if it is happening at all, if this isn’t the crack in the façade we’ve been waiting for all along. Maybe this is the failure that Scorsese couldn’t bear to show: Rupert Pupkin bombing.

The climactic monologue appears more or less intact in the December 15, 1976, draft of The King of Comedy script that can be found online, although the finished film’s coda is still at this stage in a gestational form. King was the only produced script by Zimmerman, the film critic for Newsweek from 1967 to 1975. He obviously knew a thing or two about fandom, as the author of the 1968 tome The Marx Brothers at the Movies, and two books about New York sports coauthored with Dick Schaap—The Year the Mets Lost Last Place, about the 1969 World Series season, and The Open Man, a biography of Knick Dave DeBusschere. The screenplay for King was completed a decade before the movie began shooting in the summer of 1981, and Zimmerman was apparently sitting on a pile of unfilmed screenplays when, in 1993, he died of cancer at age fifty-four. One of these was something called Back Again, in which Adolf Hitler, thawed out and among the living, writes an apologetic volume and becomes a best-selling author—much like Pupkin, who as The King of Comedy concludes has sold his memoir King for a Night “to a leading New York publishing house for in excess of one million dollars,” with a major motion picture in the offing.

All this and more is covered in the closing montage of Pupkin’s postarrest media highlight reel, which begins after we see him bundled into the backseat of an unmarked police car and headed for jail after the show airs. The montage is all shot-on-video material, a format previously used to denote Pupkin’s fantasy life in the live-wedding daydream. The sense that something’s not quite right here is sealed in the film’s final shot, which has a triumphant Pupkin, wearing a Mephistophelian red suit worthy of Ray Walston in Damn Yankees, returning to claim the spotlight he abdicated during his time inside, greeted by an ecstatic audience. The announcer’s introduction is a litany of choppy soundbites repeated mechanically, as if created in much the same crude cut-and-paste style in which we saw Pupkin conjuring the illusion of an “audience” on his audition tape. The chorus of praise—“Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen!” “Let’s hear it for Rupert Pupkin!” “Wonderful!”—gives this something of the same feel of the OCD locked-groove ending of The Aviator, in which Hughes is led away muttering “The way of the future, the way of the future” ad infinitum. The camera settles on Pupkin, master of his domain, finally the center of attention and receiving the ovation that he’s stubbornly believed is his birthright, and the last thing we see is his contented smile.

It’s not so far from the conclusion of De Niro’s next great film, Sergio Leone’s 1984 Once Upon a Time in America, which ends on a freeze-frame of De Niro’s guilt-wracked gangster, Noodles, as he breaks into an idiot grin. Noodles is stretched out on a pallet on an opium den, dreaming of being reunited with the friends whose deaths he inadvertently caused—some have suggested he’s even dreaming the entire section of the film set in the 1960s, an elaborate absolution for his actions. Similarly, many readings of Taxi Driver interpret the film’s ending as unmoored-from-reality Bickle’s fantasy, as though he imagines his thwarted existence has been suddenly justified after he is made into a tabloid hero à la Bernie Goetz (or, for an even smaller subset of the population, George Zimmerman). And so, too, do interpretations of The King of Comedy tend to assume that the stage that Pupkin inhabits at the end of the film exists only in the headspace of a narcissistic protagonist who has become irreparably lost inside himself, that what we are seeing is being “broadcast” live from a padded cell somewhere upstate.

There’s certainly evidence to support these readings, though it is worth noting that they are in some ways reassuring interpretations. Is it more disturbing to think that Bickle and Pupkin are lone nuts, or to accept that the media really might valorize their transgressions, and society, seeing itself in these antiheroes, really might embrace them? Here is Scorsese, speaking in his Personal Journey . . . Through American Movies about the central metaphor of Sam Fuller’s 1963 loony-bin thriller Shock Corridor: “In Fuller’s vision, America had become an insane asylum.” Similarly, the crazy world of showbiz in The King of Comedy may be read as a microcosmic reflection of a larger madness, one reason the movie still gets under your skin, why this sick joke weathers so many retellings. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A sociopath and an agoraphobe get into a car . . .