First, we start with Taxi Driver: The 1970s streets of Manhattan have descended into the postlapsarian dystopia forecast in a thousand bad acid trips from the decade earlier. The technological fix for a society that the post-war progression promised has been swallowed up in nothing more than the sprawl of concrete and the rise of brutalist architecture. With no life ring cast from those in power or prominence, who were more concerned with threats from afar than the onset of internal decay, the denizens of the city sink into the plashy mire of crime and punishment.
Martin Scorsese’s study of dilapidation, both culturally and personally, is a force to behold and a masterpiece that shook up cinema with a splurge of disturbing violence. However, six years later, when the dust had settled on the maelstrom that Travis Brickle had blustered up, Scorsese bettered his effort with The King of Comedy, his greatest film to date.
On the surface, championing The King of Comedy might seem contrarian, but when push comes to shove, it is evidently his most influential work. The script was almost directly transposed with added face make-up and a few hammy farces for Joker, co-creator of The Office, Stephen Merchant, has credited it as the reason behind the now ubiquitous “jarring tones” in the seminal comedy series, and the idea of a delusional protagonist propelling the story as a sort of unreliable narrator enduring a folly of their own making is something you see in masterful Coen brothers films time and time again. Why then, does it seem to suffer a debt of credit in a more critical sense?
The issue that Scorsese faced from the off was that unfortunately, it had ‘comedy’ in the title. Nobody takes comedy seriously! And when you produce a comedy that is no laughing matter, you have two problems on your hands. Taxi Driver made its point unflinchingly — unflinching is a word that critics and audiences adore. Rightly so, all the best films remain uncompromising without ever succumbing to cynicism. To go to the extremes of a point without ever being blindsided is a feature of great art and this is where The King of Comedy assails the rest of Scorsese’s admittedly masterful work.
The subtext of Paul D. Zimmerman’s amazing script is a subtle one, and it is one that Scorsese seizes on perfectly. The brutalism of the 1970s was over. By the time King of Comedy was released in 1982, even punk was on the way out. The dystopia of Taxi Driver had been paved over and people were cosying up to the faux cushion of commercialism. MTV was now a shiny new thing. Andy Warhol’s idea that in the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes was coming to fruition. Individualism was the new buzz word and Rupert Pupkin embodied that in the bleakest, most isolated sense. Everything is delicately hung in the welter of the screenplay: the mask of fame, dreams versus delusions, stilted social mobility, capitalism and everything else.
The brilliance is that this depth is also shared by the characters. None of them are bludgeoned about to prove a point. Take, for instance, Sandra Bernhard’s magnificent Masha – undoubtedly Scorsese’s greatest female character – she strolls into proceedings with a mania that makes you think ‘Dear God, there’s two of these lunatics!’ Then the humbling truth reveals itself that they’re essentially just an amplified version of an army of people we all know. As wild, eccentric and damn right dangerous as Masha seems she remains forever humanised, forever just a few wines away from your neighbour.
Sandra Bernhard expertly plays Masha with a magnificent lack of self-awareness (which is surely among the most difficult things to achieve in acting). Topped off with a brilliant soliloquy that stands out as some of the finest scripting that Scorsese has ever handled, the dark humour unspools with a brisking sense of the absurdity of delusional individualism, which seems to be catching on in society.
Whilst the characters might lack self-awareness, the film itself remains constantly on track. It is far from some wavering contemplative affair that gets dubbed as a directors ‘most complete work’ in an obituary decades after the fact. The thing is a fanfare and a thrill ride. The author Patrick deWitt once wrote, “I for one find it an annoyance when a story doesn’t do what it’s meant to do.” In an ideal world, the line would be unnoticeably jejune but seeing as though so few stories do what they’re meant to do, it actually prickles with poignancy and perceptiveness. The King of Comedy delivers on what it sets out to do every step of the way.
The proof of this comes with the pudding, and what a tasty last course it proves to be. The final closing monologue of Rupert Pupkin is not only some of Robert De Niro’s greatest acting but one of the funniest scenes in cinema. It would have been so easy to make his stand-up section some bumbling disaster, but instead, he brilliantly muddies the message of the whole film by actually being good.
And what’s more, in a meta sense he is even better. Classic comedy techniques are enacted throughout whereby we (the audience watching the cinema screen) know the double meanings that Pupkin’s audience don’t. He comically jokes, ‘No, he’s literally tied up right now!’ and the audience laughs, but like the ‘he’s behind you’ chuckle of panto, the audience in the cinema laughs louder at the true depths of the darkness of the comedy. The weirdest twist coming in the fact that he is simply a straightforward derivative sort of stand-up, implying that his monomania derived not from wanting to usurp the comedy world with his magic originality, but simply to seek out some sort of purpose and belonging and grab a slice of the pie (Hello, X Factor etc.).
Pupkin’s moment in the sun is the pathos the story needed, and it is perfectly delivered. His characters motives and madness are unnervingly placed in the context of society giving the film as much scope as any. In the end, it may well go under the radar because the cerebral undertones are perceived as at ends with the screwball surface for those after something a bit more, well, like Taxi Driver. In truth, however, it is this contrast that makes the film the perfect encapsulation of the human comedy. If the simple purpose of a movie boils down to the need to entertain, then like all the best comedy, The King of does it with the sort of bittersweet taste that makes tragedy all more palatable.