powered by AFI
Kidnapping is rarely used as a comic device in movies but in Martin Scorsese's razor sharp satire, The King of Comedy (1983), it seems absolutely appropriate given the obsessiveness of the central character, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Pupkin is an avid celebrity autograph hound and would-be stand-up comic with delusions of appearing on television in his own talk show. To accomplish his goal he begins stalking renowned comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in a desperate bid to appear on his top-rated program. Naturally, he meets resistance on all fronts until he hatches a scheme to kidnap Langford with the help of another celebrity stalker, Marsha (Sandra Bernhard). With mission accomplished, Pupkin then stuns Langford and the authorities with his ransom request: He demands a spot on Langford's TV show where he can perform his pathetic stand-up act before a national audience.
In Martin Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly, screenwriter Paul Zimmermann said part of his idea for a script was inspired by "an article in Esquire about a man who kept a diary in which he assessed each Johnny Carson show: "Johnny disappointed me tonight," he would write. The talk shows were the biggest shows on television at the time. I started to think about connections between autograph-hunters and assassins. Both stalked the famous - one with a pen and one with a gun. I wrote a treatment and then worked with Milos Foreman on a screenplay. We ended up with two versions - one he liked and one I liked. After a few years Milos dropped out of the project and I sent the version I liked to Marty Scorsese. This was about the time of The Last Waltz (1978). Marty read it, and liked it, but was already doing a script about a comedian with Jay Cocks. Later he said he hadn't really understood the script at first. But he did send it to Bobby De Niro. Bobby loved it.....Eventually Marty decided he wanted to direct King of Comedy. He and Bobby took the script, and a novelized version of the story I had written, and went out to Long Island...when I read the script they did I literally jumped up and down. I was thrilled."
Once the script was completed, Scorsese and De Niro turned their attention to casting with particular interest in the role of Jerry Langford. Johnny Carson was obviously the ideal choice but he turned the offer down. Other possibilities that didn't pan out included Dick Cavett, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr. While Scorsese was considering other Las Vegas entertainers, he suddenly thought of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, eventually gravitating toward Lewis because of his dynamic showmanship during the annual telethons he hosts for cerebral palsy. Once Lewis accepted the part, pre-production on The King of Comedy proceeded smoothly.
It wasn't until Scorsese begin shooting The King of Comedy that he began to encounter problems. For one thing, he didn't feel like he was adequately prepared when filming began but was forced to start earlier than anticipated in order to avoid an impending directors' strike. Then he encountered logistical problems while filming on the streets of New York City due to the difficult demands of unions and city officials. The whole process physically exhausted him yet Scorsese forged ahead. In Scorsese on Scorsese (edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie), the director confessed: "It was a very strange movie. The scene when Rupert Pupkin turns up uninvited at Jerry's house was extremely difficult for everyone. It took two weeks and it was just so painful because the scene itself was so excruciating....what improvisation there was came mainly from Sandra Bernhard in the sequence in which she tries to seduce Jerry. Sandra is a stand-up comedienne and I used a lot of her stage performance in that scene. The sexual threat to Jerry was very important, but he used to crack up laughing. Then it became difficult to deal with, and his comments and jokes became edgier, throwing Sandra off for a little while. Finally he worked it all out and helped her with the scene. People in America were confused by The King of Comedy and saw Bob as some kind of mannequin. But I felt it was De Niro's best performance ever. The King of Comedy was right on the edge for us; we couldn't go any further at that time."
Producer: Arnon Milchan
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul D. Zimmermann
Production Design: Boris Leven
Cinematography: Fred Schuler
Costume Design: Richard Bruno
Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Original Music: Robbie Robertson
Principal Cast: Robert De Niro (Rupert Pupkin), Jerry Lewis (Jerry Langford), Diahnne Abbott (Rita), Sandra Bernhard (Marsha), Shelley Hack (Cathy).
By Jeff Stafford