Martin Scorcese’s “The King of Comedy” (1982) is a carefully crafted film that exposes all the disgusting details of celebrity obsession. It’s an excruciating film to watch, following lonely people as they try to avoid the gaping hole that solitude leaves within them. Though the plot might seem a bit dated now — talk show hosts aren’t as relevant as they used to be — the message remains. Celebrity status is something that every regular person could attain, and some will go to extreme lengths to achieve it. Yet, when celebrity status is achieved, it’s impossible to be seen as a human being, because their fame outweighs their humanity.
“The King of Comedy” follows Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) as he attempts to break into the talk show host scene through whatever means necessary. Eventually with the help of his friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard), the two kidnap Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) which allows Rupert to perform a monologue in front of Jerry’s TV audience.
Every scene in the film is purposeful. There is no wasted space within its two-hour runtime, with each moment dedicated to showing Rupert’s delusions and his warped sense of reality, or to document his careful plan of achieving fame.
When Rupert isn’t on screen, the film dedicates itself to showing Masha’s obsession with Jerry, which is the opposite of Rupert’s. Both of them want Jerry for different reasons, Rupert because of the clout he holds, and Masha wants him sexually. Her focus is not even really about Jerry as an actual human being, rather it’s the idea of him that she has in her head. Jerry recognises that Masha does not actually want him but instead wants the idea of him, which he has come to accept throughout his life as a famous person.
All of the actors within “The King of Comedy” give incredible performances, but it was Jerry Lewis’ performance that finally allowed him to be praised by critics. The irony of this lies in the fact that this role is unlike most of his others. Lewis is known for his specific comedic style, which involves a lot of physical comedy like pratfalls and mugging, but also a precise use of comedic timing. He’s wacky and over the top, drawing all eyes to him. However, Jerry Langford is stern, joyless, and extremely professional.
By understanding Lewis’ career as a comedian and specifically the kind of comedian he is, the role of Jerry Langford becomes even more impressive. However, that doesn’t mean Lewis’ other films should be disregarded. This performance was only possible due to his 40 years of prior fame.
“The King of Comedy” is unlike other Martin Scorsese films due to its lack of narration, but the core of the film is one that’s found consistently throughout his filmography. Scorsese is obsessed with human suffering, loneliness, the lengths we go to reach our goals, failure, and depravity. “The King of Comedy” is a feat of direction and performance that is sure to be enjoyed by all.