Now More Than Ever, THE KING OF COMEDY Rules

Martin Scorsese’s jet-black comedy also remains unnerving—and timely.

In honor of Ingrid Goes West, Alamo Drafthouse is running a series of films picked by Ingrid director Matt Spicer called Tales of the Obsessed. You can check out the lineup here. And get your Ingrid Goes West tickets here!

The functional similarities between comedy and horror have long been noted and discussed (both being about buildup and payoff, the disruption of the norm, etc.), and nowhere is the line dividing the two genres thinner than in the stalker film. Not the teen-stalker flick e.g. Halloween etc., but movies about obsessive characters worming their way into the lives of those they are fixated on. Any number of romantic comedies could have their scripts flipped just slightly to become frightening tales of monomania, and it has always struck me that What About Bob? is essentially a remake of Cape Fear with Bill Murray in the Robert Mitchum/Robert De Niro role.

Speaking of De Niro, no stalker film has walked the tightrope between unease and humor like Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, the fifth collaboration between the actor and director. On the surface, its view of New York City couldn’t be a more different than that inhabited by Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Instead of the seamy underbelly, The King of Comedy takes place on daytime streets that are alive with pedestrians and tourists, in upscale offices and elaborate TV studios, in an expensive high-rise apartment and an opulent summer house—where the tables are set for one.

That’s the lonely milieu inhabited by Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), host of an eponymous, hugely popular talk show, who receives the adulation of millions when he’s on the air but seems to have no social life outside it. Yet it’s his existence that is coveted by Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), a messenger and aspiring comedian who lives in the basement of his mother’s New Jersey house. With his bad haircut, sleazy mustache and loud apparel, Rupert looks rather ridiculous, and his demeanor is not at all as outwardly threatening as Bickle’s. Yet he is just as marginalized and just as obsessed, and equally capable of criminal behavior. He’s so determined to perform his standup routine on The Jerry Langford Show that he’s willing, with the help of the more aggressive groupie Masha (Sandra Bernhard), to abduct Langford himself and ransom him for that shot at stardom.

In that side of the story (scripted by Paul D. Zimmerman, a former Newsweek film critic), The King of Comedy is a time capsule. Today, celebrity stalking is inextricably tied to the Internet, but in the ’80s, such a person had to leave his basement and put in a little more effort. Rupert hovers outside the Langford Show stage door with fellow autograph collectors (whom he treats, like everyone in his limited circle, with condescension), and repeatedly shows up at the program’s offices. Eventually, Rupert deludes himself into thinking he has been invited to Langford’s country mansion and travels there with Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a high-school crush he has reconnected with. The upshot is a vividly performed scene of rejection, embarrassment and anger that leads directly to Rupert’s kidnapping plot.

This all sounds like scary stuff, and on many levels it is. But The King of Comedy also has many legitimately funny moments, even if you’re occasionally cringing on the inside while watching them. Some of them are in context given the milieu, others are punchlines spoken in character. When I first saw the movie at age 15, in fact, I responded more to its satire and humor than to its darker undercurrents, which I didn’t really get at that age. (I did recognize the statements it was making, though; The King of Comedy marked one of the first times I realized a movie could be about something.)

There’s a bit of irony to that, since a good part of my motivation to see the film was the promise of witnessing something scandalous or controversial. I was largely unfamiliar with Scorsese’s filmography at the time, having only heard about Taxi Driver, and while my parents went to see Raging Bull, my younger brother and I were in the next auditorium over watching The Incredible Shrinking Woman. But like many teens, I was attracted to stuff that sparked outrage, and being a little more media-savvy than my peers, I was aware that The King of Comedy had become a hot potato. Prior to its release, popular Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck attacked the film in print, stating that it could easily lead to copycat crimes against celebrities. She cited the fact that John Hinckley Jr. had claimed Taxi Driver as an inspiration for his attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

The movie’s genesis dates back to well before that shooting (and the murder of John Lennon by psychopathic fan Mark David Chapman in December 1980), however. De Niro first got ahold of Zimmerman’s script in 1974, at which time Scorsese turned it down; Michael Cimino was attached for a time, then let the project go during the tsuris surrounding Heaven’s Gate. Scorsese then decided to return to The King of Comedy (telling The New York Times that he identified with Rupert in a way, from his early years of rejection as a struggling filmmaker), and it was already in preproduction when Hinckley committed his crime in March 1981.

The film wound up taking a tortured path to the screen. Rushed into production in the summer of ’81 to beat a potential DGA strike, it shot for 20 weeks because Scorsese was suffering from exhaustion, which also resulted in a prolonged editing period. A reshoot was undertaken in late October 1982, and 20th Century Fox bumped the movie out of its Christmas debut that year to the following February—then a graveyard period for studio releases. Reviews were widely mixed, and even some of those critics who were positively inclined toward it (including Roger Ebert) described it in terms suggesting it was anything but a fun night at the movies.

The result was an expensive box-office flop; with a final budget of $19 million, The King of Comedy grossed only $2.5 million. As a result, Scorsese had to put plans to follow it up with either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York on hold, and instead tackled the low-budget After Hours, and then made his first true venture into the mainstream with The Color of Money, which helped him back to the top.

In the intervening years, The King of Comedy has become both a cult film and a reassessed critical favorite, now considered one of Scorsese’s best. Most significantly, it is appreciated today as a remarkably prescient look at the continued rise of celebrity culture and the pervasiveness of television in society. Nowhere in the film is this truer than at its ending (and here’s a SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t seen it), in which Rupert, once he has served his time for taking Langford, is seen achieving fame and fortune as a best-selling author and host of his own TV show. It has long been debated whether this turn of events actually happens in the movie’s narrative, or is just a fantasy of Rupert’s—but today, much more so than in 1983, it can be seen as an entirely plausible reality.

Check out the Tales of the Obsessed lineup and get your Ingrid Goes West tickets here!