How Scorsese’s ‘King of Comedy’ Influenced a Generation of Film, Television, and Stand-Up

The 1983 Robert De Niro vehicle helped create the current vogue of "anti-comedy."

Roger Ebert’s original review of The King of Comedy is a useful tool for understanding exactly how indifferently Martin Scorsese’s comedy/drama was received upon its release – coming as it does from one of the director’s earliest and loudest boosters, and even he can’t figure out what to make of it. Calling it “one of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I’ve ever seen,” Ebert describes the film as “an agonizing portrait of lonely, angry people with their emotions all tightly bottled up. This is a movie that seems ready to explode — but somehow it never does.” And this was one of the kinder notices; Pauline Kael insisted, “It’s so – deliberately – quiet and empty that it doesn’t provide even the dumb, mind-rotting diversion that can half amuse audiences at ordinary bad movies.” And yet, like antihero Rupert Pupkin in a waiting room, The King of Comedy refuses to go away. A box office failure in 1983, it’s since been pinpointed as a key influence by scores of modern comedians. Its anti-comic style is all over today’s alt-comedy landscape. And with a new restoration and re-release (starting Friday, at New York’s Film Forum) in the offing, it’s worth asking why the film was received so coldly then, and why it’s embraced so warmly now.

If you’ve not seen it – and seriously, correct that post haste – here’s the movie in a nutshell: Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a social misfit who fancies himself a stand-up comic, though he has no professional accomplishments or even performance experience. That’ll all change, he’s certain, if he can just secure a spot on the nightly talk show of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a Carson-esque kingmaker and personality. One night, Rupert saves Jerry from a mob of autograph-seekers and manages to work his way into his backseat, where he pitches the star directly; Jerry advises him to come by his office, go through the proper channels, etc. But Rupert is a man who hears what he wants to hear, and imagines this pro forma brush-off as the first step of a professional and personal relationship. He tries to ingratiate himself with Jerry’s staff; he shows up unannounced at Jerry’s country house, with high school crush Rita (Diahnne Abbott) on his arm, and is swiftly escorted from the premises. Desperate, Rupert and similarly unhinged pal Masha (Sandra Bernhard) conspire to kidnap Jerry, holding him hostage in exchange for a featured spot on the show.

The script – penned by film-critic-turned-screenwriter Paul D. Zimmerman – had been floating around for nearly a decade by the time the film hit theaters in spring of ‘83. Inspired by a David Susskind show on autography hunters and an Esquire article on a fanatical Carson follower, Zimmerman “started to think about the connections between autograph-hunters and assassins. Both stalked the famous – one with a pen and one with a gun.” His script caught the attention of a post-Godfather II Robert De Niro, who was just beginning to experience the kind of fame found at the script’s center; De Niro brought it to Scorsese, then shooting Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, who turned it down. “I didn’t understand it,” the director recalled. “I was too close to it.”

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in "The King of Comedy"

Six years later, on the heels of their rewarding collaboration on Raging Bull, De Niro (who had bought the script and held onto it all those years) again put King of Comedy in front of Scorsese, who finally agreed to take a shot at it. The timing was fortuitous; they were towards the end of a period wherein its narrative made sense, where a single shot on a show like Carson’s could make or break a break a stand-up. “Comedy was in an interesting period, because standup hadn’t gotten to be this huge business,” says New York Times comedy columnist Jason Zinoman, noting “not only was it before the real boom of clubs exploding everywhere, but there really wasn’t that much stand-up on television, either.”

By the time Scorsese and crew went into production the summer of 1981, two recent events veered their fictional story – of a madman driven to violence by imagined connections with celebrities – uncomfortably close to fact. One afternoon the previous December, outside his apartment building in Manhattan, John Lennon signed an autograph for a fan named Mark David Chapman; later that night, Chapman shot and killed Lennon as he returned home from a recording session. The following March, outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C., John Hinkley Jr. fired six shots at President Ronald Reagan, wounding the President, his press secretary, a police officer, and a Secret Service agent. Hinkley claimed he committed the act to impress Jodie Foster, in a strange attempt to mirror the events of Taxi Driver – a Scorsese film, in which she co-starred with Robert De Niro. (That film, in turn, was loosely inspired by the attempted assassination of presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.)

Though such events had faded slightly by the time Twentieth Century Fox released King of Comedy in February of 1983 (they spent nearly a year sitting on the film in light of disastrous previews; vice president of production David Field recalled, “In Kansas City we got such bad numbers, it became funny”), the comparison to Taxi Driver is not only apt, but instructive. Both films concerned a protagonist unable to function in social situations, in no small part because of what Scorsese called the “extraordinary violence and hostility in him”; both films find that protagonist attempting and failing to connect with a beautiful, idealized woman; both stories culminate in that character resorting to a desperate act of violence; both conclude with a (perhaps fantasized) coda in which that act results in precisely the kind of praise and fame they might’ve hoped for.

Yet Taxi Driver’s climactic shoot-out, for all its gore and ugliness, is a visceral sequence, a release valve for the tension that’s accumulated for the previous two hours. King of Comedy, as Ebert notes, never “explodes,” and thus never gives us that release. Zimmerman later pinpointed this problem: “I think people knew the movie was funny as they were watching it, but they didn’t feel safe enough to laugh. When you laugh, you’re defenseless, so you need a context of reassurance. King of Comedy had such a climate of danger that people didn’t allow themselves to laugh. That confused the studio. They didn’t know how to promote it.”

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That’s an understatement. The original poster (above) situated De Niro and Lewis as caricatured “Joker” and “King” on playing cards, but its tagline warned viewers, “It’s no laughing matter.” Few bothered to find out; it only earned back $2.5 million of its $19 million budget. “But of course it flopped,” wrote Tom Shone in the recent Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective. “How else to greet a film about flop sweat? What better debut for Rupert Pupkin than a groan in a half-empty theater?” But the film wound up in regular rotation on HBO and a brisk renter on VHS, in that mid-to-late-‘80s period that was so formative for future comic writers and performers.

In terms of subject matter, King of Comedy was ahead of its time in its presentation of comedy in particular and show business in general as a business, a job with all the flatness of any other workplace. In earlier peeks at the comedy world, explains historian and writer Mike Sacks, there was “a magical element to it. If it’s for Your Show of Shows, you’re a young writer and you’re witnessing elephants walking past you. If it’s for The Ed Sullivan Show you’re witnessing beautiful girls walking past you, jugglers, bands – but in this it was sort of like a commercial entity. It was just another day at work for these people, and you saw that in a sense it’s no different than any other major cooperation.” And thus, King of Comedy’s portrait of how a late-night talk show works – complete with celebrities playing themselves and long-time Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova as Jerry Langford Show producer Bert Thomas – directly influenced such groundbreaking comedies as The Larry Sanders Show and the various iterations of Alan Partridge, to say nothing of inside-showbiz comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, and BoJack Horseman. (Entertainment journalism and showbiz commentary in general also became more prevalent in the years that followed, with Entertainment Tonight’s 1981 debut leading the way.)

It’s also important to remember how sharply opinions – particularly among the intelligentsia – have shifted about television from that period to ours. As Zinoman notes, much of the “savvy, sophisticated comedy of that time took for granted this idea that television was terrible,” a lesser medium, for lesser intellects. There was something of that in Scorsese’s fascinating approach to the material. Because it was set in the world of television, the filmmaker decided to shoot it like a television show, in what De Niro biographer John Baxter called “old-fashioned framing, almost square, largely empty sets furnished in primary colors, a flat lighting style,” matched with edits that leaned heavily on the conventional medium-close-up/over-the-should reaction formula. The result, notes critic David Ehrenstein in his book The Scorsese Picture, is “a series of provocations – frontal assaults on standard moviegoer expectations.”

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Yet as with the best gimmicks of technique, Scorsese’s bold play mirrors the frustrations of the narrative. “In The King of Comedy, it’s all a series of frozen frames,” he later explained. “The characters never penetrate each other’s areas. They just can’t get in.”As a result, we don’t get the visceral thrill of his customary technique, the juice of an exhilarating dolly shot or flashy camera move. We’re locked in, just like the characters are.

That frustration goes a long way towards explaining why the film didn’t play then – and why it does now. This is a daring tonal experiment for 1983, when the wall between church and state that separated comedy and drama was so strictly adhered to. “As far as the sensibility of comedy, I think in retrospect King of Comedy was hugely influential, but it was so bizarre,” Sacks says. The tone it establishes is challenging, because there are funny scenes and situations which could easily be played for laughs, but that black cloud of tension and danger hangs over all of them, and Scorsese won’t give you that release. It’s a comedy that doesn’t care about getting laughs – a much more common notion now than then.

Which is not to say that anti-comedy, or at the very least deconstructive comedy, was unheard of. Steve Martin had the biggest stand-up act in the land, as Zinoman points out, and his act “was doing a parody of a showbiz act. So his stuff, Martin Mull’s stuff, Albert Brooks’s early videos for SNL and albums were really deconstructing comedy. And Andy Kaufman, too. So you have the roots of this idea of like, satirizing and deconstructing talk shows, which Letterman really brought into your living room every night on TV.” Late Night with David Letterman premiered on February 1, 1982, when King of Comedy was in post-production, but Scorsese had been a fan of Letterman’s earlier morning show, Zinoman says, “so Letterman was on his mind when he was making The King Of Comedy.” When the film was released, Letterman returned the favor by having Scorsese and Zimmerman on as guests, as well as Sandra Bernhard, whose “whole relationship with Letterman, in a weird way, was born out of King Of Comedy,” Zinoman says.

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“Her role in that it was the most punk unhinged role that I had ever seen up until that point, even to this day,” Sacks agrees. “It was almost like she didn’t even know the camera was on her and she was totally untethered from reality.” That holds especially true in her scenes alone with Jerry, while Rupert is off doing the show; with the object of her desired taped down to a chair, her live-wire energy, dish-smashing physicality, and bonkers improvisations (this is all guesswork, but seriously, who could’ve written a line like “Put on some Shirelles, I just wanna be black, I wish I was Tina Turner”) are both funny and dangerous.

The kind of off-center comedy that King of Comedy traffics in, and in many ways cleared the way for, is often dubbed “Comedy of Awkwardness,” but here and in the best of that material, there’s more to it than that – there’s embarrassment, anxiety, desperation. In Sacks’s book And Here’s the Kicker, Stephen Merchant pinpoints it as a key influence on his most famous co-creation: “Both Ricky [Gervais] and I wanted dead time for The Office and we didn’t want to have too many laughs. The King of Comedy is a good example of that. It has weird, jarring tones. We liked those tones. Any episode of The Office could potentially end on a sorrowful note, or it could end on a melancholic one. It was just what it was. It didn’t have to have the sitcom beats.”

Today, Sacks sees its anti-comedy influence in “everything. Whether it’s Tim and Eric, whether it’s Adult Swim, whether it’s videos for College Humor, the Galifianakis TV show, it’s all over. The humor in discomfort I think is extremely common. You would find it with Andy Kaufman in the ‘70s but to have a character like Rupert Pupkin as a lead character, one that you associate with, who is not only is a horrible person but a horrible comic. I think that’s just astonishing.”

“I haven’t seen it since I made it,” Scorsese told Richard Schickel a few years ago. “It’s too embarrassing.” But maybe he is, as he felt when he first read that script all the way back in 1974, “too close to it.” In 2008, Roger Ebert revisited the film, to write a “reconsideration” for his book Scorsese by Ebert, and remained frustrated: “I cannot give myself to it. It has no emotional point of entry. All of the characters are closed doors.” That analysis is probably accurate. What no one – not Ebert, not Scorsese, not Zinneman – could’ve predicted was how much of contemporary comedy was rooted in the notion of keeping those doors shut tight.

The King of Comedy’s restoration opens Friday at Film Forum.