Follow TV Tropes


Film / The King of Comedy

Go To

"Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime."
Rupert Pupkin

The King of Comedy is a 1983note  American Black Comedy film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis.

The story centers around the autograph hunter and aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), whose ambition far exceeds his talent. One evening Rupert chances to meet Jerry Langford (Lewis), a successful late night talk-show host who craves his own privacy. Rupert, believing that his "big break" has finally come, starts stalking Langford in the hopes of landing a spot on his show, and soon begins to indulge in elaborate and obsessive fantasies in which he and Langford are colleagues and friends. Ignoring the polite attempts of Langford and his staff to brush him off, Rupert finally resorts to kidnapping him in order to become "king for a night."

This film was a real departure from Scorsese's earlier work (such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull), due to its highly minimalistic style and absolutely unique tone. De Niro is also cast against type as a "real nerd", the definitive Loony Fan, while Lewis has a rare non-comedic role. Perhaps because of all this, the film was a huge commercial and critical failure in the year of its release. However, it has since acquired a cult following and is popular among both stand-up comedians and the likes of Paul McCartney for its poignant portrayal of celebrity culture. Joker takes significant inspiration from the movie as well, even featuring De Niro in a role comparable to Lewis's.

Random trivia: the film was the first from Regency Enterprises, and was distributed theatrically by future part-owner 20th Century Fox. It is the only film from the Embassy International era that Regency outright owns worldwide, and one of three (the others being Brazil and Legend) to which Regency has full international rights.


  • Abhorrent Admirer: Masha for Jerry. Also Rupert for Jerry, albeit in a non-romantic/non-sexual way.
  • Accidental Misnaming: The staff at the TV studio get Rupert's name wrong in many different and creative ways (Pumpkin, Pipkin, Pupnik, Puffer, etc.).
    Rupert: It's often misspelled and mispronounced.
  • All Part of the Show: During his monologue on the Langford show, Rupert flat-out tells the audience that he only got on by kidnapping Jerry, who at that very moment is "strapped to a chair somewhere in the middle of the city". They naturally assume he's joking.
  • Ambiguous Ending: It's not clear if everything after Rupert's big show is actually happening or if it's his fantasy.
  • Ascended Fanboy: A major Deconstruction of the concept.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Wonderful Remark" by Van Morrison, which plays as the end credits roll. It was actually a song Morrison had first written and recorded in 1973 but never released. When his old pal Robbie Robertson asked him to contribute to the soundtrack, Morrison dusted it off and he and Robertson worked up a new, more dramatic arrangement so it could fill this slot.
  • Basement-Dweller: Rupert Pupkin has converted his mother's basement into a makeshift talk show set with life-size cutouts of his favorite celebrities and good sound equipment to recreate and project himself into the life he wants. Rupert's life is that of a stereotypical nerdy, underemployed, celebrity-obsessed loser who lives in a world of fantasy while mooching off his mother.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Jerry tries to warn Rupert that being famous isn't all it's cracked up to be. Rupert being Rupert, it flies right over his head.
    Rupert: I'm going to work fifty times harder, and I'm going to be fifty times more famous than you!
    Jerry: Then you're going to have idiots like you plaguing your life!
  • Big Applesauce: Rupert must venture into the swarming, chaotic hive of Manhattan from his home in the relatively quiet suburbs.
  • Bittersweet Ending: From a meta standpoint, at least. A closing montage reveals that Rupert's dream of stardom actually seems to come true — after serving less than half of a 6 year sentence at a minimum security prison, he publishes his autobiography (which becomes a bestseller and is planned to be turned into a "major motion picture") and acquires a manager/agent with more offers in the pipeline — but at the cost of having played hell with Langford's and several other people's lives. And that's assuming the whole thing isn't just another of Rupert's insane fantasies playing out.
  • Black Comedy: The satire and humor of the film center around a delusional and obsessive man (and an even more mentally unstable young woman) stalking and eventually kidnapping a celebrity.
  • Boring, but Practical: Jerry's advice to Rupert is to basically keep honing his material, get as much experience doing stand-up as he can and start at the bottom of the ladder and work his way up. It's solid advice but Rupert is interested only in getting fame and getting it now.
  • Both Sides Have a Point:
    • Jerry and the studio secretaries point out that A) he really should work on his material first and put in actual work at various comedy clubs, and B) the fame Rupert desperately wants isn't all it's cracked up to be.
    • Rupert, for his part, is tired of being labelled as a delusional prick (which he is) and just wants to not be some shmuck off the street, forever chasing fame and not standing out of the crowd because he wasn't lucky - anyone trying to make it in comedy (or, really, any art) can sympathize. His routine isn't even bad or mediocre - it's genuinely funny, if a little generic.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: "Brilliant" may be a stretch, but Rupert shows a surprising amount of cunning and intelligence despite his detachment from reality. His comedy routine isn't half bad and it's enough to suggest that Rupert would have had the potential to be a successful comedian or comedy writer if he'd followed Jerry Langford's blunt, but honest, advice to put in the time and effort needed to hone his craft.
  • The Cameo:
    • Members of The Clash are seen walking around Times Square. Comic pianist Victor Borge and Dr. Joyce Brothers turn up in Rupert's fantasy of marrying Rita on Jerry's show. And Tony Randall fills in for Jerry while the latter is being held hostage.
    • Martin Scorsese, meanwhile, has a Creator Cameo as the Langford show's director. This was made possible by Lewis assisting with the direction when Scorsese had suddenly realised he knew nothing about TV studio set-ups.
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: Lampshaded at one point by Jerry, who lists all the pitfalls and headaches of stardom to Rupert (who, naturally, pays not the slightest heed).
  • Celebrity Paradox: Rupert has a cardboard cutout of Liza Minnelli in his basement. Liza Minnelli had a deleted scene as a guest on Jerry's show in the film, and she previously starred opposite De Niro in Scorsese's New York, New York.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Rupert Pupkin is pretty much the poster boy for this trope. More precisely a Darker and Edgier and Stepford Smiler of the same, in that he's actually much smarter than he pretends and indeed has a nasty, ruthless edge.
  • Conversation Cut: Rita the bartender, subject of Rupert's high school crush, asks if 15 years isn't a little too long for Rupert to ask her out on a date. Cut to Rupert laughing heartily, as they're out on a date.
  • Cringe Comedy: Rupert's series of humiliations as he chases his hopeless dream. It's been argued that this film was an early Trope Maker.
  • Deconstruction: Years before its time, this film is an Unbuilt Trope of some of the features of celebrity culture that we have come to accept but was still new at the time. The film is a very dark look at the concept of celebrity worship, of audience's identification with an artist and the work and how that relationship affects both the artist and the fan. Langford is lonely, isolated and utterly committed to his job, his fame preventing him from having a normal life. Meanwhile, Rupert has No Social Skills and is an embarrassment to his mother; his love for Langford is a shallow desire for acceptance and affection.
  • The Determinator: Even after being repeatedly told to leave Langford's production company office, Rupert keeps coming back, having to be escorted out by security the first time and literally dragged out the second.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: Ray Charles's version of the standard "Come Rain or Come Shine" plays over the opening credits, and the song is later performed in-universe by Masha to Jerry.
  • Fan Disservice: Masha in her underwear when Jerry Langford is alone with her. Jerry definitely isn't amused one bit.
  • Freudian Excuse: Rupert establishes this in his act during the climax, with the majority of his material deriving from his unhappy childhood and abusive parents. Given that Rupert is a Consummate Liar and his craving for sympathy and respect, there's a fair chance that this is not to be taken seriously. Rupert is shown to be a literal Basement-Dweller with a mother (who has not been dead for nine years, as he claims in his act) who's justifiably fed up with him.
  • Funny Background Event: When Rupert and Rita are in the restaurant, you can see the man behind Rupert (the actor Chuck Low, who played Morrie in Goodfellas and was a good friend of De Niro's) imitating Rupert's hand gestures.
  • Giftedly Bad: Rupert's act is unoriginal and mediocre at best, but his timing is excellent and his enthusiasm and ambition are boundless.
  • Groupie Brigade: The film opens with Jerry Langford confronting a mob of screaming fans (including Masha) and getting "rescued" by Rupert.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Rupert doesn't believe that making it in comedy involves legwork and years of struggling, always seeking the immediate "big break" that'll make him an overnight star. He's also fixated on Jerry's own breakthrough success decades ago guest-hosting on one of Jack Paar's shows as proof that it can happen, ignoring the hard truth that Jerry brings up: that it took effort to have that opportunity in the first place.
  • Hero Antagonist: Jerry and the network executives are this towards Rupert and Masha. Rupert and Masha are both psychotics, while Jerry is the one being wronged as Rupert is only interested in usurping him for his own selfish ends along with Masha's for her own Yandere tendencies. Jerry had every right to be miffed at Rupert intruding on his property uninvited when he came by to persuade him to collaborate with him (which is Truth in Television with celebs irritated with Loony Fans and paparazzi trespassing on their private properties without invitations). The network executives were being polite and patient with Rupert at first and were correct to boot him out of the studio when he attempted to break into their offices and loitered in the waiting room for an appointment with Jerry that would never come, while Rupert repaid them by kidnapping Jerry.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: While Rupert manages to give a reasonably competent (though hardly spectacular and mostly unoriginal) stand-up act, it's clear that his ambition and obsession with fame far outstrip any abilities he may have as a stand-up comic.
  • Hypocrite: Rupert looks down on Masha for being an obsessed Stalker with a Crush whose relationship with Jerry only exists in her mind, completely missing the fact that description applies as much to himself as it does to her (except for the crush part).
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Rupert isn't so much interested in being a comedian as he is in becoming a celebrity. He admits as much to his studio audience:
    Rupert: Hey, it's better to be a king for a day than stay a schmuck for a lifetime.
  • I Just Want to Be You: Essentially what Rupert expects from Jerry.
  • I Reject Your Reality: The mental gymnastics Rupert and Masha jump through to think they have a shot at befriending Jerry are staggering. Some of the most glaring examples:
    • Rupert shows up uninvited to Jerry's house, and keeps telling himself that Jerry is just joking around when he repeatedly tells Rupert to leave and threatens to call the police.
    • After the kidnapping, Masha seems to really think that Jerry, who's tied up with masking tape and unable to escape, is truly aroused by her undressing and throwing herself at him (not to mention her bad singing).
  • Ignored Expert: Both Jerry and Cathy Long give Rupert honest, practical advice on how to work his way up as a stand-up comedian, with Cathy even offering to send a talent scout to check out one of his shows. Unfortunately, in Rupert's mind he's ready for the big leagues RIGHT NOW, and anything else is beneath him.
  • Imagine Spot: Various imagine spots as Rupert has daydreams about success and fame and appearing on Jerry's show. In these imaginary conversations, the first one sees Jerry as Rupert's mentor, the second has them as equal colleagues, with his idol asking him to take over his show, and in the third one, he helps Rupert marry the girl of his dreams on live TV.
  • Implacable Man: Rupert is a dark example; rejection after rejection, rebuke after rebuke will not make this man give up on his dream.
  • Inherently Funny Words: You can tell that Rupert Pupkin is a real sad-sack just by the sound of his name.
  • It's All About Me: Rupert takes this attitude to pathological extremes. As far as he's concerned, other people are just props in a play in which he's destined to be the center of all attention.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to Scorsese's other films, at least insofar as nobody gets killed.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: It's kind of hinted to be the case with Masha who lives in a townhouse in Manhattan (very expensive real estate) but has a bad relationship with her father. Her shared adulation for Jerry Langford brings her and Rupert, who has a low-paying delivery job, into an odd friendship related entirely to autograph hounding and worship of Jerry.
  • Loony Fan: Rupert is the posterboy for this trope. Masha may be even more unhinged, as she combines obsession with Jerry's celebrity with sexual obsession.
  • Loser Protagonist: Rupert; however, he deserved most of the misfortunes due to him being a Psychopathic Manchild and Loony Fan who harasses Jerry and his co-workers.
  • Meta Twist: Rupert ironically shared some comedic quirks of characters played by Lewis early in his career (i.e. a man-child with obsessive fixation and a somewhat innocent vibe, although it's more obviously self-deceiving in Rupert's case), yet he is a Loony Fan of Lewis' character in the film, who is the complete opposite of Rupert. It gives off a vibe that the real, grounded Jerry Lewis is at battle with his over-the-top screen self and Rupert himself embodies Jerry Lewis' comedy self haunting Lewis as Langford in the real world.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Jerry Langford is pretty obviously based on Johnny Carson. (Carson was offered the role but turned it down. Carson's producer Fred de Cordova played his fictional equivalent, however.)
  • No Love for the Wicked: Played with; Rupert does fantasize about marrying Rita, but this seems more about the status of having a pretty girl around for show than any actual romantic or sexual interest in her or anybody else. Notably, Rupert doesn't accept Rita's (grudging) offer to come up to her apartment after their date, nor do sexual conquests of any kind figure into his very active fantasy world.
  • Not So Above It All: While Rita is obviously embarrassed and disgusted by Rupert's behavior when it becomes clear that they are uninvited "guests" at Jerry's house, she can't help but steal a memento of their visit from Jerry's coffee table.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Practically every single time Rupert interacts with someone else is an example of one. Rupert only hears what he wants to hear and twists everything else anyone says to fit his view of reality.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Rupert is a marginally employed man who lives in his mother's basement and still lives in the same world of fantasy that he inhabited as a teenager. He's also so obsessed with becoming a celebrity that he's willing to resort to kidnapping and threats to a man's life to achieve his aims.
  • Rubber Face: Jerry gives Rupert's face a thorough workout during one of their imagined meetings.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: In 2015, it was announced a stage musical for Broadway was to be made with Stephen Trask writing the music and lyrics, and a book by Chris D'Arienzo.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Rupert Pupkin, who never tires of correcting people when they get his name wrong. When flipping through his autograph book with Rita, he speaks critically of each the comedians in there as if he's a peer (Woody Allen, he believes, is a close friend), and she finds out he wrote his own name in there as well, acting like it'll be worth something someday.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Taxi Driver. Both are about lonely, mentally disturbed protagonists, the difference being one is a drama, the other is a comedy. They both star the same actor in the leading role and have similarly ambiguous endings.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Masha for Jerry.
  • Stalker Without A Crush: Rupert for Jerry.
  • Stepford Smiler: Rupert is always relentlessly cheerful, constantly smiling, and never frowning (remarkable considering his actor and the type of roles he usually plays). He never gives any impression of losing his cool. But underneath those smiles is a cold and uncompromising man, with a very manipulative edge.
  • This Loser Is You: At his core, Rupert isn't much different from millions of other people who are obsessed with fame and celebrity, he simply takes this obsession to more dangerous extremes than most. The fact that he isn't so different from "normal" people obsessed with Jerry's celebrity is shown by the behavior of autograph hounds and random individuals like the old lady in the phone booth.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Rupert is this to the core. Rather than throwing him out of his limo, Jerry allows Rupert to ride with him uninvited and gives him some sensible advice on how to proceed with his career. Ms. Long (Jerry's assistant) takes the time to listen to Rupert's tape and provides him with some constructive criticism, but Rupert won't hear any of it, he just wants instant fame. In addition, the network executives who in other films would be presented as bad guys are patient and even a little too polite in dealing with Rupert. Rupert's return for this kindness and courtesy is to kidnap Jerry and hijack the show for his own ego.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Psychotic and selfish Loony Fan Rupert Pupkin, who affects the mannerisms of a bumbling, always smiling, polite guy.
  • The Voice: Rupert's mother never appears in person. Only her voice is heard.
  • Villain Protagonist: Initially at least, Rupert doesn't seem particularly malicious and is usually oblivious of his bad behavior. However, he's a self-absorbed man who ultimately resorts to criminal activity in order to get a chance at fame.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: All Rupert expects from Jerry is his approval and a chance to be on TV despite having undeveloped talent, weak routines, and no background as a performer.
  • Whatever Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out if Masha was also arrested. The last we see of her is when she is running after Jerry in her underwear.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Langford, after he talks Masha into cutting him loose, slaps her and escapes.
  • You Are What You Hate: Rupert is very rude and condescending towards Jerry's other fans, particularly Masha, despite being cut from the same cloth as them.
    Rupert: Sydney, I"m really not that interested. It's not my whole life.
    Sydney: What's that supposed to mean?!