The King of Comedy, while less well-known than the overrated Network, is the better film by far.
If Network, Sydney Lumet’s classic 1976 black comedy, is so highly praised on liberal Democratic web sites like Media Matters or Digby, then it’s almost certainly because the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky looks back with nostalgia on an idealized early TV news culture that never existed. The King of Comedy resists this temptation. Martin Scorsese has no illusions about the golden age of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and Fred W. Friendly. The King of Comedy is not another self-aggrandizing tale about how See it Now brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Scorsese centers the debate on America’s corrupt mass media right where it should be, on class. Rupert Pumpkin, De Niro, is a 34-year-old would be comic who lives in the basement of his mother’s house in Jersey City. Every day he joins a crowd of autograph hounds and crazed fans outside of the studios of the Jerry Langford show. While a thinly fictionalized version of Johnny Carson, Jerry Langford could just as easily be David Letterman or Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Simon Cowell, or any figure in the mass media with the power to make or break careers. Rupert Pumpkin, like a contestant on American Idol, is hoping against hope for just a few minutes of his time. Pumpkin, who’s unwilling to work his way up through small clubs and open mics, sincerely believes that he’s a comic genius ready for the big time. All he needs is a few minutes of time on the air.
One day he gets what he thinks is his big break. Masha, an even more deranged fan played by Sandra Bernhard, manages to sneak into Langford’s limousine. She’s waiting for him in the back seat after he finishes taping the show. Langford is so terrified that Pumpkin is able to take control of the situation, and get into the limousine in her place. They drive off together. During the ride home, Pumpkin makes his pitch. Langford, now sufficiently calmed down — Pumpkin wants to be Langford, not fuck him — like any high status figure in the mass media does when he’s forced to deal with a persistent wannabe. He brushes him off. Here’s my card. Talk to my agent. Send my producer a tape. We’ll get back to you.
Rupert Pumpkin doesn’t take the brush off for a brush off. He’s in his own world. We get an idea of just how deluded Pumpkin really is when we see him practicing his monologues in the basement of his mother’s house. It’s not only that he has life-size cut outs of Jerry Langford and Liza Minelli. It’s not even that he imagines himself as a guest on the Jerry Langford show. Scorsese digs much deeper than this. While Rupert Pumpkin dreams about finding a place inside the mass media, we can very clearly see that he’s already there. The way he speaks, his body language, his jokes, his self-deprecating humor, Pumpkin is not an individual human being. He’s a composite, a collage of what the corporate mass media has made of him. What he wants is not to get into the mass media, but to raise his status, to work his way up from the proletariat to become part of the media’s elite.
Rupert Pumpkin’s redeeming quality is that he actually tries to get what he wants. He takes his illusions seriously. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Blake said. “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” Rupert Pumpkin is that fool.
If Americans love their oppressors, adore their own ruling class, then it’s mostly because they believe in the illusion of upward mobility. Americans accept their subordination because, for them, it’s just another type of deferred gratification. If they work hard, they assume, if go to the right schools, and have the right attitude, they’ll get ahead. When Rupert Pumpkin goes to Jerry Langford’s studios, he’s the perfect American. He’s bright, chipper, patient, polite but with a touch of persistent aggression. He wants a spot on Langford’s show the way most of us want a job. Nobody at the office has any idea who he is, but he still manages to convince the receptionist that Langford told him to drop by, so he gets a meeting with Cathy Long, a producer and agent played to ice-queen perfection by Shelly Hack. If Jerry Langford is the 1% then Cathy Long is the upper-middle-class, that layer of professionals that stands between the elite and the great unwashed. She knows just how to handle an obnoxious peon like Pumpkin, how to give him just the right dose of “hope” while putting him in his place, her thin veneer of civility more social control then graciousness, but so skillfully managed that anybody but Rupert Pumpkin would have taken her rejection as encouragement.
Cathy Long is the first hurdle the ruling class puts up for would be members, propaganda. Rupert Pumpkin, like any good revolutionary, can’t be turned back by propaganda. As soon as he realizes he’s not going to get a spot on the show chatting with Cathy Long he drops the charade. “Mr. Langford trusts my judgement,” she says after telling him that his routine isn’t ready for prime time. “Mr. Langford may trust your judgement,” he responds. “But I don’t.” Cathy Long’s icy civility becomes simple ice. She’s had enough. She calls security, the second hurdle, propaganda mixed with the promise of muscle. She goes back inside her office, and shuts the door. But the polite security guard who tries to finesse Pumpkin out of the office isn’t enough. The Jerry Langford Show’s front office needs real muscle, not white collar muscle. Soon, we see three armed, security guards who drag Pumpkin out of the building and throw him into the street. Pumpkin has now been met with the ruling class’s plan B, brute force uncut with persuasion
If Rupert Pumpkin is persistent, it’s partly because he’s motivated by love. Nobody is more persistent than a persistent romantic. Rita Keane, played by Robert De Niro’s real life wife Diahnne Abbott, tends bar at a saloon Pumpkin frequents in Hell’s Kitchen. They also went to high school together. Loser who lives in his mother’s basement though he may be, Pumpkin, his delusions about a spot on the Jerry Langford show very much alive, finds the courage to ask her on a date. She’s dismissive, but not totally dismissive. We get the sense that Rita is as attracted to Rupert as he’s attracted to her. If he gets his shit together, he’d have a chance. He shows her a book of autographs. She’s impressed. He’s a good collector. Then he shows her his own autograph in the same book. She’s even more dismissive. His penmanship sucks. Nevertheless, when he invites her out to a party at Jerry Langford’s house, she believes him. Perhaps she has aspirations towards stardom herself. Perhaps he’s just persistent. But, for whatever reason, she gets on the train out to suburbia, where they both crash Langford’s weekend mansion, with predictably disastrous results.
If propaganda and brute force are the first two hurdles, Jerry Langford himself is the third hurdle. A star struck fan is not going to be deterred by Cathy Long or the building’s security. They’re just lackeys. Rupert Pumpkin, as a future Jerry Langford, knows he doesn’t play in their league. Like the Russian peasant who thinks that the Czar is a good person manipulated by scheming government, he thinks Langford will understand him where Cathy Long didn’t. He has so internalized the values of the media elite, he not only genuinely likes Langford, he thinks Langford likes him. Needless to say Langford doesn’t. Langford, like most celebrities, actually despises his fans, the more devoted the more he thinks they merit his contempt. He orders Pumpkin to leave. Pumpkin refuses. Rita wants to go. She tries to make Rupert see that Langford wants nothing to do with them. It still doesn’t work. Pumpkin loves Rita. He’s not willing to be discouraged by her. Finally, Langford just explodes.
“You’re a moron.”
For most directors, this would put an end to it all. Pumpkin, slapped across the face, would realize he’s been living a lie. Perhaps he’d decide to work the small comedy clubs and open mics after all. Maybe he’d give it up altogether. But whatever Scorsese may be, The King of Comedy is a revolutionary film. Rupert Pumpkin isn’t going to give up his false consciousness. He’s going to persist in his folly until he becomes wise. Enter Masha. Masha has a big townhouse near the Langford show’s studios. What’s more, Jerry Langford, while he despises and fears his fans, still likes to take walks through the city, alone, without undercover security. This is all the opportunity Rupert and Masha need. They stalk Langford, kidnap him, then hold him hostage until his producers agree to give Pumpkin a 5 minute spot on the air. They do. We finally get to see Pumpkin’s monologue. It’s terrible. Or is it? Whatever Pumpkin’s talent, or lack of talent, as a comic, his spot on network TV convinces people he’s good. He’s sentenced to six years in jail for kidnapping. But he gets out in two. The gun wasn’t real. Besides, he’s now a media star. To punish him too severely would be to destroy the illusion. It would be roll out the brute force when all they need is propaganda. This is still 1983, not 2011. They can let Rupert Pumpkin become another star, yet another King. As long as he does nothing to threaten the system as a whole, they can assimilate him. He can wear a crown.
We don’t find out what happens to Masha. We assume she did some jail time as well. If Rupert Pumpkin is the prototypical male member of the 99%, then Masha is the prototypical female member. Pumpkin wants to be the 1%. Masha wants to fuck the 1%. With Jerry Langford tied up in her townhouse and Pumpkin at the studios, she gets her opportunity. She sexually assaults Jerry Langford. There’s really no other word for it. Reverse the genders, and you open up a whole new can of worms, but, here, it says something very important about the cult of celebrity. Masha is basically a Maenad, a shrill, Jewish New York Maenad but a Maenad nonetheless. Jerry Langford’s initial terror in the limousine comes from the way that, deep down inside, he knows that the media star is also a sacrifice. Dionysus will be ripped apart. The peons will kill their idols. Scorsese’s genius is how well he understands the capitalist response. Someday in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. Jerry Langford escapes when Masha unties him so she can fuck him. But he’s been replaced. Pumpkin is the new Jerry Langford, the new King of Comedy. Eventually he will have his own versions of himself, men who want to take his place, and his own version of Masha, women who want to fuck him then rend him to pieces after they’re done with him. When he’s gone, capitalism will throw up another Dionysus, another American Idol. Reality shows, the empty presidency of Barack Obama, Jersey Shore, Snookie, it’s all down here on film in 1983.
My only criticism of The King of Comedy would be this: Martin Scorsese had Jerry Lewis tied up. He had him at his mercy. And he didn’t demand that he release “The Day The Clown Cried?” It’s just not credible.