“This is America, where everyone has the right to life, love and the pursuit of fame.”
—Ryan Seacrest, American Idol
If Rupert Pupkin were to be airlifted out of 1983’s The King of Comedy and dropped directly into our current cultural moment, he’d likely resemble an overeager child set loose inside an enormous candy store. In the many years since the unhinged, fame-obsessed Pupkin ransomed his way onto television one desperate night, our culture has changed in ways that even he could never have imagined, accelerated to a point where wall-to-wall reality television now regularly makes celebrities out of awful people, bestowing them with fame and cultural currency merely for being the very worst versions of themselves. Sure, we’ve always been fascinated by fame and the famous, but never before has access to the spotlight seemed so within our grasp. We are offered up seemingly endless paths toward fame, multiple ways to get our foot in the door, with actual talent often being only a small part of celebrity’s current equation. Kids want to be “famous” more than anything else, and, in a recent survey of 18–25 year olds, 51% stated that becoming famous is now their generation’s most important goal.
We have morphed into a culture where everyone’s mythical fifteen minutes of fame is now happening all the time, all at once, all around us. It’s seen almost as a birthright, something we’ve collectively taught ourselves to believe we’re owed. As a result, many of us end up on one kind of stage or another all day long—even if only on Facebook or Twitter—but nobody seems particularly happy or content. Instead, we’ve mostly built new ways to long for old things—to long for more, always, because “more” holds out for us, as it did for Pupkin, an endless promise of something that might be able to fill us up. But nothing ever does.
Rupert Pupkin would no longer need to resort to crime to get himself on television. Instead, he could simply stand in line to audition for America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, or Last Comic Standing, networking with other mediocre hopefuls, tweeting at his celebrity idols from his smartphone to pass the time (“great show last night @ConanOBrien! men like us have a duty 2 entertain!”). Thirty years ago, Pupkin’s obnoxious and delusional lust for fame seemed scary enough, but his character could still be seen, at the time, as a proverbial canary in the cultural coal mine, a warning of what we, as a society, were in danger of becoming if we continued to raise our kids in front of the warmly glowing tubes of a television babysitter, while promoting celebrity as the highest form of accomplishment. But now, in 2013, Pupkin no longer serves as a cautionary tale. Instead he’s become an eerily prescient mirror, reflecting us back to ourselves. A nation full of Pupkins.
“A kind of banalization of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup.”
― J.G. Ballard
Pupkin—the smarmy, obsessive, and awkward man who drives the uncomfortably dark heart of The King of Comedy—desperately wants to be a star. Or, more specifically, to be on television, a late-night talk show host in the vein of his personal hero, Jerry Langford (a Johnny Carson/Bob Hope amalgam, played by Jerry Lewis). His misguided, cringe-inducing attempts at achieving this fame ultimately lead him (along with Masha, an equally unhinged celebrity stalker, played by Sandra Bernhard in her big-screen debut) to kidnap Langford one night out of desperation and demand from him, by way of ransom, that Pupkin be allowed to open that night’s show with his stand-up comedy routine. He insists that guest host Tony Randall introduce him as “the new king of comedy”, and that the pre-taped show air uncut and in its normal fashion. After the show airs, he will let the FBI know where Jerry is, and turn himself over into their custody. Backed into a corner, the network agrees, and a star is born.
Rupert Pupkin happens to be every bit as obnoxious as his name would suggest. When first we meet him, he is forcing his way into the backseat of Langford’s limousine after a taping of the show, under the guise of helping protect him from overzealous fans. It turns out, of course, that Pupkin is the one who ought to be feared. Not because he is particularly intimidating or imposing—physically, he appears as harmless as a fly—but rather for a far more insidious trait: an absolute and utter inability to take “no” for an answer—or, really, to take any kind of hint about anything at all. Pupkin is naive, inept, annoying, cloying, clueless and largely untalented, but armed with a single-minded perseverance that is able to overcome each and every one of these deficiencies. Not in a feel-good, overcoming-the-odds, Rudy-type way, though. In fact, not a single thing in this film ever, ever feels good. It’s a large part of what makes the whole thing so disarmingly, uncomfortably brilliant.
“The King of Comedy was right on the edge for us; we couldn’t go any further at that time.”
The fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro—and the one given the rather daunting task of marking the pair’s follow-up to Raging Bull—The King of Comedy was, for many years, an often overlooked and undervalued film in Scorsese’s vast filmography. Thankfully though, it has grown quite a bit in stature in the years since its release, moving from box office disappointment to cult favorite to a respectable and prescient work, largely owing to Rupert Pupkin’s terrifying resonance.
Robert De Niro crafts the vexatious Pupkin from the ground up, from gait to mustache. He finds a way to inhabit Pupkin’s skin in a way that immediately gets under ours. We cringe when he crashes through people’s personal space and violates all sense of decent boundaries, when he takes a clear brush-off line from Langford (“Call my office some time”) as an honest and open invitation, when he sits on the couch in his mother’s basement hosting a pretend talk show and playfully interacting with the life-size celebrity cut-outs that surround him. Even by today’s standards, with characters like Larry Sanders, George Costanza, David Brent, Michael Scott, and Larry David having all but turned turned cringe comedy into an art form, Pupkin still manages to stand head and shoulders above the pack—likely because we are never given anything remotely redeeming about him to hang onto—and De Niro’s performance remains, all these years later, a deeply uncomfortable tour-de-force of ungainly inappropriateness. According to Scorsese—who directed him in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino—it’s the best performance De Niro has ever given.
But why is a film like this so tough—almost painful at times—to watch? Why does watching Pupkin create such an internal reaction within us? Most of us can stomach far more horrific characters onscreen (Hannibal Lecter, for example) with far less physical reaction—but how can that be?
In large part, the film’s discomfiting nature is due to former film critic Paul Zimmerman’s air-tight and darkly satirical script, as well as De Niro’s full immersion into Pupkin’s delusional world. But a lot of it also has to do with the purposeful and decidedly un-Scorseseian directorial decisions made by Scorsese throughout the film. The King of Comedy doesn’t look like a Martin Scorsese film, and it often doesn’t feel like one, either. The camera stays dead still, pinned down and motionless within its frames despite Scorsese’s known penchant for pushing cameras in, out, and around his characters in nearly all his other films—often dazzlingly so. The King of Comedy, though, employs no flashy cinematic pyrotechnics, no fancy camera movements to help open up the film at all or allow it to breathe in any way, no directorial flourishes to offer up even a moment’s escape or help countenance the almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia that builds throughout the film. Instead we are, quite literally, stuck with Rupert Pupkin—whom Pauline Kael once referred to as “Jake LaMotta without fists”—from beginning to end. At times, it’s almost unbearable. We want to look away.
And this near-inability of ours to be stuck with Pupkin—our almost visceral reaction to his plethora of inappropriateness—appears to stem from something that modern neuroscientists call “vicarious embarrassment”. Recent studies are beginning to show that the areas of our brain which light up whenever we see a person doing something embarrassing—especially when they themselves are unaware of the embarrassment—are often the very same areas in the brain associated with feeling and processing pain. In this way, then, it can literally “hurt” us to watch someone like Rupert Pupkin—and, according to these same studies, the more sensitive and empathetic you are by nature, the more unbearable it becomes. It’s why we squirm with anxious anticipation when Rupert shows up at Jerry’s guest house uninvited (with a date he’s hoping to impress!) and begins making himself at home while waiting for Langford to return. Germans actually have a word, fremdschämen, for this very particular type of feeling. It means, essentially, to be embarrassed by proxy.
“The amount of rejection in this film is horrifying. There are scenes I almost can’t look at.”
And watching The King of Comedy is nothing if not an extended experiment in embarrassment by proxy. It fills nearly every inch of the screen for 109 minutes. It’s what caused Roger Ebert to declare it “one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I’ve ever seen.” It’s what kept audiences away in droves, causing the film to be, financially, one of the biggest box office disasters of 1983. Whatever it was that audiences were looking for back then, it wasn’t this. Still happily bathing in the feel-good glow of Reagan’s Morning in America, nobody seemed particularly ready to take a closer look at the culture’s darker underbelly.
Perhaps the toughest part of watching Pupkin is how totally naked he often is, how openly he wears his intentions, and how misguided they usually are. Despite the lack of any discernible talent he remains drawn to fame like a moth to fire, seeing it as a magic something to annihilate all his nothingness. No longer would he be a lonely guy in his mid–30s, living at home with his mother, chock-full of ambition and perserverance, but nothing else. Fame could be his bulwark against insignificance, a gift that, once bestowed, might fix his miserable little life. He could find acceptance at last, maybe even respect. He could finally get the girl (Rita) he’s been in love with since grade school. He could prove everyone else wrong, silence all those internalized voices of rejection he’s amassed throughout the years. In celebrity there would be a kind of salvation. There would be grace. There would be love.
And this love, well, it would likely look a whole lot like it does in Rupert’s fantasies, both a specific and a universal embrace. A handful of these sequences are scattered throughout the film (though they remain, like the film itself, very plainly shot and absent any visual sense of being “fantasy” scenes). Each one involves Jerry and Rupert being colleagues or friends of one kind or another, and, when taken together, they offer a series of small windows into Pupkin’s psyche in a film otherwise largely unconcerned with delving much into the interior life of its main characters.
In the longest and perhaps most telling sequence, Pupkin imagines himself appearing as a beloved guest on The Jerry Langford Show. And it is here, about halfway through the film, where Scorsese and screenwriter Zimmerman finally begin hinting at all the long-buried but still present emotional trauma likely driving Pupkin’s relentless itch for stardom. Langford, after introducing and praising Rupert, proceeds to “surprise“ him, talk-show style, by bringing out his old high school principal from backstage. The elderly schoolmaster greets him warmly, informs us that he’s also now an official justice of the peace, and proposes that an impromptu wedding take place live, on the air, between “the king of comedy and his queen” (Rita, of course). As the wedding gets underway, the principal/minister launches into a monologue:
Dearly beloved, when Rupert here was a student at Clifton High School none of us – myself, his teachers, his classmates – dreamt that he would amount to a hill of beans. But we were wrong. And you Rupert, you were right. And that’s why tonight, before the entire nation, we’d like to apologize to you personally and to beg your forgiveness for all the things we did to you. And we’d like to thank you personally, all of us, for the meaning you’ve given our lives.
Rupert nods in acknowledgement. The audience claps. It’s a quietly disturbing scene in a film full of them, as well as a reminder that we all carry our pasts with us, wherever we go, looking for something or someone to heal the wounds. This is only natural, of course—we all do it, and in a large way it’s what becoming an adult is all about—but when that desire becomes entangled with fame, when we look to the world to acknowledge and approve of us as a way of measuring our worthiness or validating our appeal, our moorings and morality can quickly become the first casualties.
For Pupkin, it’s a trade-off he’s more than willing to make. He is counting on fame to prove his worth to a world that has long rejected him, and has aimed his ship toward its shore accordingly. Morals, integrity, and stability are of increasingly little value to him; getting on television is his only goal, and he is ultimaely able to convince himself that the ends justify the means. Sadly, it’s a narrative that now seems all too familiar in our world of Real Housewives, Big Brothers, and Jersey Shores. Anything for our fifteen minutes.
After he’s performed his stand-up routine, but before he’s officially taken into police custody, Pupkin walks into the bar where Rita works and—to the slight dismay of a handful of patrons—changes the channel on the television. The Jerry Langford Show is just beginning. He looks triumphantly around the bar as the show airs behind him, no hint that he regrets even a single second of the decision to kidnap his way into the limelight. Jail time awaits him, but so, too, does fame. And if that’s the price he has to pay to become known, he’s more than willing to pay it. Rupert Pupkin has to make something grand out of his life because otherwise, well, he’s stuck being himself.