As THE WOLF OF WALL STREET proved, sometimes people have trouble telling when Martin Scorsese is kidding. He’s a serious artist, sure, and more film-literate than pretty much anybody on the planet, but there’s a dark sense of humor running through so much of his work. He’s so rarely commended for that humor that sometimes he has to spell it out for people, like here, when he put the word COMEDY in the title.
Like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, THE KING OF COMEDY is the blackest kind of black comedy. From a script by former film critic Paul Zimmerman, Scorsese tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an aspiring stand-up comic who practices religiously in his mother’s basement for the day he will get to perform on the late-night talk show hosted by his hero, Jerry Langford (the simultaneously legendary and controversial comic Jerry Lewis). When Langford spurns Pupkin, Rupert’s hopes aren’t dashed, but his approach changes. Instead of going through the normal channels, auditioning and all that, he kidnaps Langford, demanding his spot on the show.
This is the satiric inverse of TAXI DRIVER, the earlier Scorsese/De Niro masterwork concerning themes of isolation and obsession. Like NETWORK, it predicted future trends by many years: The craven desire for fame, where in place of talent there is only ferociously aggressive drive, has a lot to do with many of the most prominent entertainers of the last decade or so. It’s comical enough, but it’s also pretty awful.
You have to be a little twisted to find THE KING OF COMEDY funny, which is why many irony-deficient pundits didn’t get it at the time. So basically, between THE KING OF COMEDY and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Scorsese has been dealing with being misunderstood by oversensitive bores for at least thirty years. But if Rupert Pupkin taught us anything, it’s that it’s better to be known and misunderstood than to never be known at all.
THE KING OF COMEDY is the midnight movie this weekend at the Landmark Sunshine in New York City.
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