Review of The King of Comedy (1982)

Moving picture, 109 minutes

Seen in 2017.

Cringe comedy. It still feels pretty fresh 35 years later, presumably because cringe comedy has become mainstream, celebrity culture continues to be ripe for satire, the handling of madness is sensitive, and Scorsese was ahead of his time in allowing Sandra Bernhard’s female stalker to shine at the climax instead of relegating her entirely to the sidelines. There’s even a stereotype-breaking Japanese role at Jerry’s country house. It’s also fun to see De Niro and Jerry Lewis going against type.

I was surprised that the director revealed Pupkin to be competent as a comedian. After much teasing of the audience, it turns out he’s self-obsessed even in his material, but he is still funny, with witnesses exterior to his own mind. Did Scorsese intend for it to seem like the late-night comedy form causes people to laugh regardless of content? The interior-exterior ambiguity of the final scene comes while the narrative is spiralling wildly out from a Network (1976) to a Truman Show (1998) level of unreality. Captivating and funny as that is, it undermines the rest of the movie. What was the point of showing Pupkin constantly lying to himself and making terrible decisions like a realistic stalker if he is in fact smart, funny, and collected enough to do both the kidnapping and the stand-up comedy show well? Rather than a balancing act, that’s a self-contradiction.

References here: Nightcrawler (2014), Joker (2019).

moving picture fiction