Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a stage-door autograph hound, is an aspiring, mentally-deranged stand-up comedian unsuccessfully trying to launch his career. After meeting Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, Rupert believes his "big break" has finally come. He attempts to book a spot on the show but is continually rebuffed by Langford's staff and finally by Langford himself. Along the way, Rupert indulges in elaborate and obsessive fantasies in which he and Langford are colleagues and friends. Hoping to impress, Rupert invites a date, Rita, to accompany him when he decides to show up uninvited at Langford's country home. When Langford returns to his house from a golfing round, he finds Rupert and Rita settling in. Angered, he launches into a furious tirade against Rupert, telling him that his act is mediocre and that he's a lunatic who'll never amount to anything. While Jerry yells at him, Rupert continues trying to stay in his good graces, until an embarrassed Rita gets Rupert to finally leave.
When the straight approach does not work, Rupert hatches a kidnapping plot with the help of Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a fellow stalker similarly obsessed with Langford. As ransom, Rupert demands that he be given the opening spot on that evening's Jerry Langford Show (guest hosted by Tony Randall), and that the show be broadcast in normal fashion. The network brass, lawyers, and the FBI agree to his demands, with the understanding that Langford will be released once the show airs. Between the taping of the show and the broadcast, Masha has her "dream date" with Langford, who is duct-taped to a chair in her parents' Manhattan townhouse. Jerry convinces her to untie him and he manages to escape.
Rupert's stand-up routine is well received by the audience. In his act, he describes his troubled life (from growing up in a poor neighborhood with neglectful, alcoholic parents; to getting regularly bullied and beaten up during his adolescence) while simultaneously laughing at his circumstances. Rupert closes by confessing to the studio audience that he kidnapped Jerry Langford in order to break into show business. The audience laughs, believing it to be part of his act. Rupert responds by saying, "Tomorrow you'll know I wasn't kidding and you'll all think I'm crazy. But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime."
The movie closes with a news report of Rupert's release from prison, set to a montage of storefronts stocking his "long awaited" autobiography, King For a Night. The report informs that Rupert still considers Jerry Langford his mentor and friend and that he and his agent are currently weighing several "attractive offers", including comedy tours and a film adaptation of his memoirs. The final scene shows Rupert taking the stage for an apparent TV special with a live audience and an announcer enthusiastically introducing and praising him, leaving the viewer to decide whether it is reality or Rupert's fantasy.Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin
Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford
Diahnne Abbott as Rita Keane
Sandra Bernhard as Masha
Tony Randall as himself
Shelley Hack as Cathy Long
Ed Herlihy as himself
Frederick de Cordova as Bert Thomas
Margo Winkler as the receptionist
Kim Chan as Jonno
Scorsese has a cameo as "Man in Van." He later appears as The Jerry Langford Show director, assuring Tony Randall that his cue cards are funny.
Scorsese's mother Catherine Scorsese plays Pupkin's (unseen) mother.
Real-life film and television producers Edgar Scherick and Frederick de Cordova have cameo roles as a network president and producer of the Langford show, respectively.
A gang of punks is seen on a street corner in the film. Billed in the credits as "Street Scum," they are played by Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, and Paul Simonon of The Clash, actress-singer Ellen Foley ("Paradise by the Dashboard Light", Night Court), Don Letts, Kosmo Vinyl, and singer Pearl Harbour.
Tony Randall as emergency guest host of The Jerry Langford Show.
Victor Borge and Dr. Joyce Brothers as guests on The Jerry Langford Show.
Lou Brown and Ed Herlihy as band leader and announcer, respectively, of The Jerry Langford Show.
Scorsese's father, Charles Scorsese, plays one of the men at the bar where Pupkin is watching his own performance on TV.
Scorsese's friend, Mardik Martin, plays a second man at the bar.
Scorsese's daughter, Cathy Scorsese, plays Dolores.
Scorsese's lawyer at the time, Jay Julien, plays Jerry Langford's lawyer.
After Raging Bull was completed, Scorsese thought about retiring from feature films to make documentaries instead because he felt "unsatisfied" and hadn't found his "inner peace" yet. However, he was keen to do a pet project of his, The Last Temptation of Christ, and wanted De Niro to play Jesus Christ. De Niro was not interested and preferred their next collaboration to be a comedy. He had purchased the rights of a script by film critic Paul D. Zimmerman. Michael Cimino was first proposed as director but eventually withdrew from the project because of the extended production of Heaven's Gate. Scorsese pondered whether he could face shooting another film, particularly with a looming strike by the Writers Guild of America. Producer Arnon Milchan knew he could do the project away from Hollywood interference by filming entirely on location in New York and deliver it on time with the involvement of a smaller film company.
In the biography/overview of his work, Scorsese on Scorsese, the director had high praise for Jerry Lewis, stating that during their first conversation before shooting, Lewis was extremely professional and assured him before shooting that there would be no ego clashes or difficulties. Scorsese said he felt Lewis' performance in the film was vastly underrated and deserved more acclaim.
After such a strong critical appreciation for the way in which Scorsese had shot Raging Bull, the director felt that The King of Comedy needed more of a raw cinematic style, one of which would take its cues from early silent cinema, using more static camera shots, and fewer dramatic close-ups. Scorsese has noted that Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film, Life of an American Fireman, had greatly influenced The King of Comedy's visual style.
De Niro prepared for Rupert Pupkin's role by developing a "role reversal" technique, consisting in chasing down his own autograph-hunters, stalking them and asking them lots of questions. As Scorsese remembered, he even agreed to meet and talk with one of his longtime stalkers:
The guy was waiting for him with his wife, a shy suburban woman who was rather embarrassed by the situation. He wanted to take him to dinner at their house, a two-hour drive from New York. After he had persuaded him to stay in Manhattan, [De Niro] asked him, 'Why are you stalking me? What do you want?' He replied, 'To have dinner with you, have a drink, chat. My mom asked me to say hi.'
De Niro also spent months watching stand-up comedians at work to get the rhythm and timing of their performances right. Fully in phase with his character, he went as far as declining an invitation to dinner from Lewis because "he was supposed to be at his throat and ready to kill him for [his] chance."
According to an interview with Lewis in the February 7, 1983, edition of People magazine, he claimed that Scorsese and De Niro employed method acting tricks, including making a slew of anti-Semitic epithets during the filming in order to "pump up Lewis's anger." Lewis described making the film as a pleasurable experience and noted that he got along well with both Scorsese and De Niro. Lewis said he was invited to collaborate on certain aspects of the script dealing with celebrity life. He suggested an ending in which Rupert Pupkin kills Jerry, but was turned down. As a result, Lewis thought that the film, while good, did not have a "finish." In an interview for the DVD, Scorsese stated that Jerry Lewis suggested that the brief scene where Jerry Langford is accosted by an old lady for autographs, who screams, "You should only get cancer," when Lewis politely rebuffs her, was based on a real-life incident that happened to Lewis. Scorsese said Lewis directed the actress playing the old lady to get the timing right.
At the time he wrote his script, Paul D. Zimmerman was inspired by a David Susskind show on autograph hunters and an Esquire article on a fanatical Johnny Carson follower. Scorsese first became aware of Zimmerman's script after it was brought to him by Robert De Niro in 1974, but declined the project citing that he felt no personal connection with it. Michael Cimino was attached to direct but his involvement with the script fell through when he left the project to direct Heaven's Gate. Prompted by the alienation he felt from his growing celebrity status, and De Niro’s claims that the film could be made "real fast", and that it would be a "New York movie" Scorsese’s interest in the project was rekindled.
Scorsese's first choice for talk show host Jerry Langford was Johnny Carson. Carson refused the role, claiming "you know that one take is enough for me." The entire Rat Pack was also considered—specifically Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—before a decision was made to select Martin's old partner, Jerry Lewis.
Arnon Milchan suggested shooting begin a month earlier than scheduled in order to avoid possible work stoppage from the DGA strike. Furthermore, Scorsese was not in good health. The film was shot over a twenty-week period, with Scorsese shooting from 4pm to 7pm every day.
Scorsese had suffered from poor health both before and during the film's production. He had previously worked on three films close together and not long after, found himself hospitalized due to exhaustion and pneumonia. He had not recovered when shooting began. The intensive filming schedule meant Scorsese could spend the remainder of his time recuperating.
Robbie Robertson produced the music for the film's soundtrack and contributed his first original work after leaving The Band entitled "Between Trains". This song, a tribute to a member of the production staff who had suddenly died, is on the soundtrack album but not in the movie itself. The King of Comedy soundtrack is a mix of popular music and thematic orchestral scoring by composer Bob James. The soundtrack includes songs from artists such as B.B. King, Van Morrison and Ray Charles. This kind of hybridization of pop and scored music would later be used in Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed.
A soundtrack album was released by Warner Bros. Records in 1983. A CD version with identical tracks was released by Wounded Bird Records in 2016.
- The Pretenders - Back On The Chain Gang (3:51)
- B.B. King - 'Taint Nobody's Bizness (If I Do) (3:33)
- Talking Heads - Swamp (5:13)
- Bob James - King Of Comedy (4:23)
- Rickie Lee Jones - Rainbow Sleeve (3:39)
- Robbie Robertson - Between Trains (3:25)
- Ric Ocasek - Steal The Night (3:55)
- Ray Charles - Come Rain Or Come Shine (3:40)
- David Sanborn - The Finer Things (4:27)
- Van Morrison - Wonderful Remark (3:57)
The King of Comedy was released on DVD on December 12, 2002 (Region 1), and April 19, 2004 (Region 2).
A digital restoration of the movie was presented on April 27, 2013, as the closing film of De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival. This latest version was produced from the film’s original camera negatives and features a restored soundtrack. While the restored film was scheduled to be released onto Blu-ray on October 29, 2013, the 30th Anniversary home media release was ultimately delayed for a release date of March 25, 2014.
The film will be made into a stage musical for Broadway with Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) writing the music and lyrics and the book is by Chris D'Arienzo (Rock of Ages).
Although the film was well received by critics, it bombed at the box office. De Niro said that the film "...maybe wasn't so well received because it gave off an aura of something that people didn't want to look at or know."
Time Out called it "Creepiest movie of the year in every sense, and one of the best". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars, writing, "The King of Comedy is one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I've ever seen. It's hard to believe Scorsese made it..." He also wrote, "Scorsese doesn't want laughs in this movie, and he also doesn't want release. The whole movie is about the inability of the characters to get any kind of a positive response to their bids for recognition." He concluded the film, "is not, you may already have guessed, a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader gave the film a favorable review, calling the film, "clearly an extension of Taxi Driver" and the "uncenteredness of the film is irritating, though it's irritating in an ambitious, risk-taking way". Joyce Millman of Salon called it, "Martin Scorsese's second least popular movie, after The Last Temptation of Christ. Which is a shame, because it's Scorsese's second greatest film, after Taxi Driver. However, not all critics gave the film positive reviews. Adam Smith of Empire Magazine called it "Neither funny enough to be an effective black comedy nor scary enough to capitalise on its thriller/horror elements".
David Ehrenstein, author of The Scorsese Picture, noted the mixed response of the film in his 1983 review. He stated that The King of Comedy "cuts too close to the bone for either large-scale mass audience approval or unanimous mainstream critical acclaim". He noted how far apart the film stood to other films made in the early years of Reagan's America which the film presented a very critical portrayal of (although the script was written well before Reagan's election, and shooting began less than five months after Reagan took office). "At a time when the film world piles on simple-minded sentiment in thick gooey gobs, a picture like The King of Comedy appears a frontal assault. The triumph of the 'little guy' is revealed to be nothing more than lumpen neo-Fascist blood lust."
Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was one of the critics who disliked the film, describing the character of Rupert Pupkin as "Jake LaMotta without fists". She went on to write that "De Niro in disguise denies his characters a soul. De Niro's 'bravura' acting in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York collapsed into 'anti-acting' after he started turning himself into repugnant flesh eggies of soulless characters.....Pupkin is a nothing." Scorsese says that "people were confused with King of Comedy and saw Bob as some sort of mannequin". Scorsese has called De Niro's role as Rupert Pupkin his favorite of all their collaborations.
Sandra Bernhard, who plays Masha in the film, indicated in a 2013 interview that Jack Black was interested in a remake. However, she dismissed the idea, saying it was "too late" to do it. Actor Steve Carell and director Bennett Miller, both black comedy fans, cited The King of Comedy as a personal favorite and inspiration to shape the sociopath character of John E. du Pont in Foxcatcher.
The film's reputation has improved, with some ranking it among Scorsese's finest films.
Film scholar David Bordwell, writing in Film Viewer's Guide, mentioned the (un)reality of the ending as a topic for debate, as there is no definitive answer as to whether the ending is reality or fantasy. By the end of the film the line between fantasy and reality is blurred for the audience as well as the character. Scorsese doesn't offer a clear answer but forces the audience to make their own minds up from how they individually read the film.
In his commentary on The Criterion Collection DVD of Black Narcissus, Scorsese stated that Michael Powell's films influenced The King of Comedy in its conception of fantasy. Scorsese said that Powell always treated fantasy as no different than reality, and so made fantasy sequences as realistic as possible. Scorsese suggests that Rupert Pupkin's character fails to differentiate between his fantasies and reality in much the same way. Scorsese sought to achieve the same with the film so that, in his words, the "fantasy is more real than reality".
Rupert Pupkin has been compared to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: both characters have serious issues with reality testing, that is drawing the line between outer objective and inner subjective reality. In her review, entertainment columnist Marilyn Beck approved Johnny Carson's refusal to play in The King of Comedy, who supposedly feared the film could inspire psychopaths like John Hinckley, calling it even more dangerous than Taxi Driver because of its lack of blood and the fact that viewers could easily identify with De Niro. In a documentary featured in the first DVD release of the film, Scorsese himself acknowledged the connection between the two characters: "Taxi Driver. Travis. Rupert. The isolated person. Is Rupert more violent than Travis? Maybe."American Film's list of the Best Films of the 1980s – #10
Halliwell's Top 1000 – #180
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Jonathan Rosenbaum: 1000 Essential Films
The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made
Empire's The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time – #87