The King of Comedy: What’s the Real Punchline of the Martin Scorsese Classic?

With the arrival of Joker, we examine one of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's most underrated movies, The King of Comedy.

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Joker pays homage to the classics. Tributes are often a polite word for artistic theft and at least one trailer has the heroic villain stealing a timeless line from the British comedian Bob Monkhouse. “Everyone laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian, but nobody’s laughing now.” Such is the dichotomy of dark comedy, some of the best laughter gets caught in the throat. It looks like Joker might have stolen more than a joke though from Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. He may have made off with the conclusion, which was up for grabs anyway.

Todd Phillips’ upcoming Batman-adjacent origin movie provides a twisted alternative universe to Scorsese’s celebrity nightmare classic. The new film features Robert De Niro as late night TV talk show host, Murray Franklin, who brings out the best in a young comic who wants to be introduced as Joker. It’s 1981 and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to bring joy and laughter, just as Murray Franklin’s show has done for him. The struggling comedian will ultimately become a superstar as the Clown Prince of Crime, but all Joker ever wanted was to be the King of Comedy. This is fairly similar to the delusions of Rupert Pupkin (also De Niro) in The King of Comedy movie, in which his idol was Jerry Lewis’ own riff on a Johnny Carson type, there named Jerry Langford. Both Fleck and Pupkin suffered trauma for their comic art, and both ultimately claim their fame as part of the booty of their crime.

The King of Comedy is the story of a wannabe standup comedian with delusions of superstardom. He doesn’t do club dates, but he’s got cassette tapes of his best bits. He recorded them at home where he lives with his mother, who constantly interrupts his monologues and remains fairly oblivious to her son’s fantasy life. He lives out his fantasies with Sandra Bernhard’s Masha, a superfan swept up in the wake of celebrity. Together they plot to put Pupkin over the top in the comedy world by kidnapping the most recognizable talk show host on the planet: Jerry Lewis’ Jerry Langford.. 

During the end of Scorsese’s movie, reality and delusion are blurred when Rupert seems to become, or at least fantasizes about, the future of late night TV. It’s what he’s accused of during the final scene of the movie, which sees him introduced on his new talk show with, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the man we’ve all been waiting for. And waiting for. Would you welcome home, please, television’s brightest new star, the legendary, inspirational, the one and only king of comedy. Ladies and gentlemen, Rupert Pupkin.” Scorsese really did create a legend when he foretold the future of entertainment in King of Comedy, but was Rupert Pupkin merely a legend in his own mind?

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read more: How Joaquin Phoenix Became the Joker

There were only a couple channels back then, cable was in its infancy and most of America watched the same late-night programming. Johnny Carson, who turned down the role, was everyone’s best friend. Not just anyone’s but everyone’s. He might not invite you to play cards, but he knew you better than Carnac the Magnificent. Jerry was equally beloved. He was already an American institution who was also a subversive auteur by 1982, especially when he was given a chance to direct himself. Lewis threw himself so far into his characters he reached the same kind of timeless moments of silliness that Chaplin reached: Inexplicable, but there. I always preferred Bowery Boys over Martin and Lewis comedies of the ‘50s, but it is undeniably there as well. After their split, both entertainers would consistently bring a zany sense of danger, in an any-thing-can-happen way, to Carson’s nightly talk show.

One of Pupkin’s fantasias imagines him having this easy rapport with Langdon. His entire subconscious reality accepts this as a truth. Real life and fantasy merge when Pupkin really does save Langdon from a crowd and believes he ingratiates himself into the popular entertainer’s world. De Niro allows the idea to grow internally to Pupkin until it explodes in a scene where he actually brings a date to Langford’s house and they make themselves at home. The date may know enough to nab a keepsake and try to forget the embarrassment. 

Pupkin doesn’t even realize he did anything out of the ordinary. His self-deception builds regularly. When he watches himself on the Jerry Langford Show, he isn’t seeing it for the first time. He’s always been destined for that appearance. He worked steadily and believes his efforts count as much as any comedian who goes through the proper channels. He is king for a night. It is reality because everyone saw him do it, across the country. They tuned in even though Langford couldn’t perform hosting duties because he was tied up (har-har).

What is happening in the fadeout of King of Comedy? Does the audience hear the sociopathic ravings of a deluded kidnapper killing time in stir or is history played out in a timeline? Does the fantasia mask the same reality that made for reality TV? Before reality TV was reality, it played out in art in so many ways. Is De Niro’s Pupkin on the verge of greatness or infamy while he sits, alone, isolated, in his cell, or is he escaping reality through daydreams? Does that even matter? At the time, we were all Walter Mitty in prison orange. It may be truer today than it was in 1982.

Scorsese is lauded as a genius in film and so much of those accolades come from his vast knowledge of the art of cinema. But it is Scorsese the artist, even if he were stripped of all that, who is the genius. King of Comedy could have been made by many acclaimed directors with similar casting. Some might have cast a more bankable name and made it a box office smash. But only Scorsese could run his can-opener over the most canned of canned TV and use it to render an impressionistic portrait of the modern world in finger-paint. Fantasy and reality collide throughout the film like silver balls through the gritty but colorful lights of an old pinball machine.

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Dashes of black and white, like the iconic Richard Widmark movie playing on late night TV, are masterful brush strokes of foreshadowing. Anyone who’s seen that old American Express ad knows Scorsese might just have a tendency to overthink things, but he does it on the spot and commits instantly. It’s almost a street thing in itself. When Scorsese worried about the language in Raging Bull, Joe Pesci teased him with “what, you making a Disney picture?” and the director threw all doubts out the window. It was confirmed. He committed. He tightened ranks. He makes masterpieces, but he does it because he knows the minds of the people he puts on those screens and he knows the very people he makes films about are watching the films he makes. There is a recognition even in the most drastically off-kilter characters that an audience out there will see themselves on that screen.

Tony Randall nails it when he says Rupert Pupkin is destined for greatness one way or another. This is a man who will either walk out on that stage and dazzle the world with his wit and be given a reprieve and everything he wants, or his act can suck and he can go straight to fucking jail. But Pupkin might also just be getting started. You see, America has always been hungry, with an appetite bordering on cannibalistic, for celebrity. The viewing public feeds on their celebrities like they are so much meat for paparazzi cameras. Who really cares for the most part? We just want to see the movie. We know it’s all some kind of PR trick anyway but damn if it doesn’t taste good.

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So Scorsese, a chef as much as a cineaste (whose mother plugged Redpack tomatoes but we forgive her because she knew to mix veal with beef), served the aftertaste. The entire movie feels like the way an old meal tastes through your nose as you exhale or belch hours later. It is so claustrophobic that it becomes personal. It comes out through our taste buds. By the end of King of Comedy, we are all victims of Stockholm Syndrome. The audience cannot help but love De Niro and Lewis. Say what you want about Lewis, but the French aren’t the only ones who celebrate this nutty professor of the comedic art. Eddie Murphy probably has a whole Jerry Lewis room somewhere. Jerry Langford is Johnny Carson and Lewis all wrapped up in one. The reality is so plausible that we can mistake it for real late night television in an instant. Half of America was having sex during The Tonight Show and couldn’t name the parakeet that peed on Johnny’s head if you bet them, but the show was on on their bedroom television.

Pupkin is living the dream he created through Jerry Langston’s nightmare. Locked in that presumed cell at the end, he is free to swim in the warm surf of his inner landscape. Pupkin has been rehearsing for this all his life, shushing his mom up so he can turn down an imaginary invite to host the “Jerry Langford Show” for six weeks. And do it so over-the-top at that. He’d be shushed himself in Sardi’s for that, if not even called sir with the added caveat that he please leave. But prison is only a prison if you don’t have somewhere to go in your mind, and Pupkin is unfettered. What else has he got to do?

And really, how long would he spend behind bars? Enough time to write a tell-all book, or better yet have someone ghost write it and pass it off to a reputable publisher. Maybe not even a reputable one. Pupkin, who was the youngest kid in his high school to graduate in traction, didn’t have to play by rules he never bothered to learn.

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But Scorsese is a teacher. He taught Oliver Stone a thing or two when the future Platoon director went to NYU film school with a mission to turn Dark Shadows antihero Barnabas Collins into anti-villain Jonathan Frid, an in-joke he wrote on the back of a napkin and passed around in class. In King of Comedy, Scorsese educates the audience on the power of the mind and what it can do. When Pupkin and Langford are in the limo together, the budding comedian tells the elder statesman–interrupts, really–that he saw this outcome play out exactly as it did when he fantasized about it. That is a powerful example of the power of positive thinking.

“Why not me? Why not? A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price. What’s wrong with that? Stranger things have happened,” Pupkin says, and we know he’s willing to pay the price because he we see him do it. He does his time and would certainly have earned his fame when he got out of jail into a world where he could have an affair with one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey.

In the film’s final moments, Pupkin is apparently in the big house when a newscast reports, “Rupert Pupkin, kidnapping king of comedy was sentenced to six years imprisonment at the government’s minimum security facility in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, for his part in the abduction of talk show host Jerry Langford. On the anniversary of his appearance on the show, Pupkin told a gathering of reporters he still considers Jerry Langford his friend and mentor. He reported he had been spending his time writing his memoirs, which have been purchased by a leading publishing house for in excess of $1 million.

As Pupkin is rotting in jail, no matter how lame his “I’m from Clifton” mugging routine was, he was news and news feeds upon itself. The story would have run all day and all night on every channel, and early pundits would have discussed it early in the morning on Sunday with a little Irish in their coffee, something on-air personalities could still do in the ‘80s. The year after he went to jail, there would probably be a one-year anniversary special report. His story would have been on the New Year’s Eve best stories of the year. He would be getting out of jail at around the same time an anniversary special would run on 60 Minutes. And all the bit players would have gotten spinoffs by then, including Marsha.

Sandra Bernhard is gloriously perverse as Masha. Her full lips hover inches over Jerry like the underside of an octopus tentacle while he is bound to a chair and unable to say no. That glint in her eyes is so scary and yet so sexy. You can see her lobbing chairs at Morton Downey or fat-shaming Honey Booboo. You just know Masha would be wild enough for her own reality show today.

Rupert Pupkin was released today from Allenwood after serving 2 years and 9 months of a six-year sentence. Hundreds greeted the 37-year-old comedian and author, among them his new agent and manager David Ball who announced “King for a Night,” Pupkin’s best-selling autobiography, will appear as a major motion picture. Pupkin said he used his stay at Allenwood to sharpen his material. He said he and his people were weighing attractive offers and he looked forward to resuming his show business career.”

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The screenplay for King of Comedy was written by Paul D. Zimmerman, who also wrote for Sesame Street and was a movie reviewer for Newsweek. This film is his best critique. There aren’t that many film critics who put their money where their mouths are. Critics who’d worked on some aspect of film, like Roger Ebert, could turn up short with disasters like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Zimmerman justifies anything he ever wrote as a critic here by so cleverly skewering society to come. Besides making his bones in film, Zimmerman walked the walk in life, getting himself to Pennsylvania’s Republican Party convention in 1984 just so there would be one vote against Ronald Reagan.

Scorsese mixes the reality with the fantasy so often that you don’t always know what you’re watching when you’re watching it, and the perspective can change at any time. It is pure subversion in film. Viewers cannot trust what they are feeling because the rug can be pulled within a few frames. The scene at Jerry Langford’s home is positively thrilling until it becomes the most claustrophobic moment in the movie. Diahnne Abbott is so thrown out of her comfort zone as her Rita Keane character lives out the collision of fantasy and reality that the audience is going through on camera.

But Pupkin and Masha’s reality itself is a fantasy. They are partners in a crime that fans can only dream about, and it’s merely an extension of their daily existence. Pupkin once waited for eight hours to see Jerry Langford and let Masha just jump right in place in front of him in line. That is a fanatic’s devotion. That is a commitment to the kind of lunacy that would work in either world, real or imagined. And after all, what was Pupkin’s legal defense in the Langford kidnapping? How can you say “I was crazy at the time” when the time is crazy?

Crazy is celebrated now. We’ve got a reality TV show president, a 24-hour news cycle, and a mass devotion to Google analytics. A viral video can make someone a celebrity in minutes. Scorsese didn’t know what technology would do for mass entertainment. He wasn’t Stanley Kubrick. But The King of Comedy knew where celebrity was headed. The ending could be taken several ways. One of them could imagine the Joker on The Tonight Show.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.