Movie Night With Urbaniak: The King of Comedy


  and I are watching Melville’s late, uneven gangster movie Un Flic last week, and Alain Delon keeps reminding us of people, specifically actors in Martin Scorsese pictures. His face looks kind of like Ray Liotta, his haircut looks like DeNiro’s in King of Comedy, and at one point he puts on what appear to be Jerry Lewis‘s glasses. And Urbaniak finally just blurts out “All right, that’s it — next we have to watch King of Comedy.” He then predicts that us watching King of Comedy will consist mostly of the two of us sitting in the dark exclaiming brilliance for two hours. Which turns out to be pretty much true.

There are certain movies which, with both Urbaniak and I, defy all rational explanations of our love for them. All the President’s Men is one, King of Comedy is another. Probably Network is a third. There is just something fascinating, excruciating and deeply troubling about this movie, and with both of us we sit there watching it, scarcely believing it was ever made.

When Raging Bull came out, everyone raved about DeNiro’s breakthrough performance, how brilliant he was, on and on, and I went to see the movie (as a 19-year-old) and while I thought he was good, I had to say that I felt I couldn’t really assess his performance because I didn’t know anyone like Jake Lamotta.

(This is to illustrate how little I knew about screen acting when I was 19 years old.)

But when King of Comedy came out three years later, I was completely blown away, because I was, at the time, making a living (such as it was) as a standup comedian and I knew lots and lots of people just like Rupert Pupkin, and DeNiro’s performance was, and is, so darkly on-the-money that, 25 years later, it still sends chills down my spine. Rupert’s desperate neediness, his hostility cloaked in cleverness, his unbelievable pomposity, his preening smugness, his utter lack of depth, his clueless mediocrity, all of it is brought to thrilling life, perhaps the most fascinating antihero I’ve ever seen in motion pictures.

Most of us in show business were, at some point or another, a lot like Rupert, fantasizing our little dreams of fame, fantasizing about how one day we would be on TV and how then everybody who didn’t think anything of us, our families, our schoolmates, all the girls who wouldn’t look at us, all the teachers who criticized us, then they would all be sorry they were so mean to us. And most of us outgrew those fantasies by the time we were, say, 20. Rupert, however is still living them, and DeNiro’s ability to summon those kinds of feelings — I mean, think of it, when DeNiro made King of Comedy, he was about as far from being in Rupert’s position as humanly possible, he was the coolest, most self-possessed, most admired actor on the planet — is nothing short of astonishing, and gets more astonishing the further I get away from the time the movie was made.

But at the time, back in 1983, one of a very small number of people sitting in a huge theater in Carbondale, Illinois, watching The King of Comedy felt like two hours of having my skin pulled off. And I mean that as the highest possible compliment. The way Scorsese captures both Rupert’s intense neediness and the suffering of the idolized celebrity, creating not just a dark comedy but a great drama, a truly disturbing portrait of a sick society is utterly overwhelming. The viewer veers crazily between empathizing with Rupert’s simple desire to be on TV and being utterly repulsed by his habits, carriage and personality.

The acting in King of Comedy is splendid throughout, but two other performances really stand out for me: first, of course, is Jerry Lewis’s, who gives a hugely intelligent, empathetic, modulated performance as someone, I’m guessing, very much like himself. The other is Shelley Hack‘s, who plays Jerry’s assistant, and whose scenes with Rupert, where she treats this simpering idiot with courtesy, kindness and professionalism far above the call of duty, I find thrilling and heartbreaking. Because Rupert sees show business as some kind of magical thing that will transform him and lift him up out of his life, and Shelley’s character is tries to tell him, in the best way she knows how, that there is, actually, a way into Jerry’s world, through hard work and applied skill, if only Rupert would listen to her. We hear her, but all Rupert hears is a gate-keeper telling him to get lost, while he “knows” he’s got a “deep personal relationship” with Jerry.

One other note: in the scene where Jerry comes home after taping his show, he stops to watch a few moments of a movie on TV. The movie is Pickup on South Street, which Urbaniak and I watched a few months ago. “‘Movie Night With Urbaniak’ is turning in on itself,” quoth Urbaniak.

I would also like to note the unusually high quality of the transfer on this DVD. Recent Scorsese releases, including New York, New York and The Age of Innocence have all had remarkably bad transfers, but this one looks as good as anything I’ve ever seen.

hit counter html code


9 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: The King of Comedy”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Un Flic is definitely an odd bird. I saw it during an Alain Delon film series at a repertory house. Uneven is the word for it, all right, but it’s also hugely derivative — of Melville’s own body of work. I wouldn’t say he was spinning his wheels exactly, but he definitely seemed like a filmmaker in need of breaking out of his comfort zone. Too bad he never got a chance to.

  2. teamwak says:

    I love this movie, and De Niro is a revelation in it!

    Very sad news about Heath Ledger. I am so looking forward to his performance in The Dark Knight. So sad for his family 🙁

    This Westboro Babtist Church have been their usual decent selves about the whole thing – they intend to picket his funeral as he was a “Fag Enabler”. Jesus!!

    Thank god they are a minority (or seem to be), all be it a very vocal one. Coming out is hard enough without the bile that they spew forth everytime they speak.

    • Todd says:

      I sometimes think the Westboro Baptist Church exists solely to make all other Americans think they themselves are intelligent, rational, tolerant people.

  3. medox says:

    Wow, my Livejournal is turning in on itself too.

    Just last month I saw Pickup on South Street at a 24 hour film festival, and put my reaction in my LJ..

    God, Thelma Ritter was amazing in that film.

  4. popebuck1 says:

    Don’t forget Sandra Bernhard – and her brilliant, completely improvised monologue during her hostage situation/”dinner date” with Lewis. Still blows me away, every time.

    • Todd says:

      My problem with Bernhard — who is great in the picture — is that that’s who she is. I went to see one of her live shows later on and couldn’t get over just how obsessed she is with being famous, it was more than a little disconcerting.

      • Anonymous says:

        But we didn’t know this when we first saw her performance. She seemed brilliant — until we knew too much. Now she’s unbearable.


  5. Anonymous says:

    After this came out, my friends and I would drive around reciting lines from this movie and feeling both smug and confused about the fact that we seemed to be the only people who liked it.

    It only gets better with time and repeat viewings.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Alain Delon

    I remember as a wee girl in the days before cable a late night showing of Zorro starring Alain Delon. I think that started a lifelong affection for the story of Zorro, and his Zorro remains one of my favorites. Sure, it was campy, but it was fun camp as opposed of groan-inducing camp.