THE KING OF COMEDY is an unnerving character study of an obsessive…well, it’s not exactly accurate to call himself a stand-up comedian, although that’s what he fashions himself as. But he doesn’t do any stand-up. He performs only in front of cardboard cutouts of celebrities arranged around his room. He pushes the country’s most famous talk show host to let him do a routine on his show, and is irritated when people expect him to follow the traditional route of working his way up, actually building a career and name for himself.
Where he – Rupert Pupkin, the lead, performed with such verisimilitude by Robert de Niro – initially feels more arrogant and hopeful than anything else, the film slowly makes clear the extent of his delusions, his failure at reality testing. The film moves from fantasy to reality with no clear demarcations, immersing the viewer in how Pupkin experiences the world. Some of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes come from the slow realisation that they’re not another fantasy, but actually real (particularly the ‘house visit’).
While it released in 1983, the focus on parasocial relationships and the madness they engender, well it feels stunningly prescient today. The arbitrariness and social roles involved in comedy (note how Pupkin’s really very middle-of-the-road routine receives such laughs based off the positioning of Pupkin in the host role), the escapism and fantasy that parasocial relationships present to people with little working in their own lives (so expertly held-off as deeper characterisation until the climatic monologue), and even just the omnipresent experience of daydreaming, it all has aged exceptionally well given how much online content plays into such dynamics.
Filmed like television, with shots unusually static for Scorsese, and usually filmed from below the knee up to highlight the comedy in body language, the film feeds disturbingly still. The lack of violence makes it even more unnerving than its obvious forebear of TAXI DRIVER in some ways, with Pupkin’s more delusional and unpredictable madness. The ending echoes TAXI DRIVER’s point about how positioning renders media narratives arbitrary, but notably keeps things ambiguous in a way that forces the viewer strictly to view things through Pupkin’s way of thinking. Four and a half tapes, and a plea for six weeks.