Gone are the days when one would be risking abject ridicule by daring to publicly suggest that The King Of Comedy is De Niro’s greatest movie. Not just up there in the same ballpark as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas but darker, funnier and mightier than them all. Seemingly, the culture has finally caught up with Martin Scorsese’s second least popular movie (after The Last Temptation Of Christ). The King Of Comedy always was ahead of its time, almost precognitive in anticipating our fast-burning, soul-corroding obsession with celebrity. After all, as Garry Shandling has unsmilingly declared, “the whole world is showbiz now.”
Released in 1983, in the wake of the Lennon assassination and the botched attempt on Reagan’s life, The King Of Comedy was widely misunderstood as a wry satire on celebrity worship and De Niro’s character, Rupert Pupkin, tagged as a kind of sitcom Travis Bickle. In the retrospective documentary that comes with this new DVD package, Scorsese makes the point that, if anything, Pupkin is a more potentially violent character than Bickle could ever be. As the aspiring stand-up who hatches a kidnap plot so that he can grab his 15 minutes and appear on The Jerry Langford Show, Pupkin risks infamy in his attempt to escape anonymity on the basis that it’s “better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.” He is truly God’s Loneliest Man. Twenty years before it was fully accepted that fame and merit could be mutually exclusive, Pupkin perfectly encapsulates the maniacal mindset of the no-talent loser who realises that lack of talent will get him everywhere with the right kind of hype.
The King Of Comedy moves at a frenetic pace that’s in keeping with Pupkin’s manic oddness. But all the freneticism is on the surface. Beyond that, the light and colour seem to be claustrophobically underworldly (more so than ever on this DVD version). The characters, meanwhile, are in constant kinetic motion but also appear strangely, horribly still (Pupkin frozen in lonely self-delusion, Jerry Lewis’deadpan Langford stiff with the boredom of success, Sandra Bernhard’s Masha a slow-ticking timebomb of sexual terrorism).
The result is, of course, a comedy of profound embarrassment that at its best (Pupkin’s excursion to Langford’s vacation home, his visits to the Hell’s waiting-rooms of TV studio receptions) is unbearably funny for the simple reason that it rings so uncomfortably true. But the result is more than a masterpiece of dark comedy. The result is also a masterpiece of modern everyday horror. At every brilliant turn, The King Of Comedy mines the horror of soulless banality that’s the only sure consequence of a world where all is showbiz and we can all be king for a night, just so long as we are pathological enough.