Schmuck for a Lifetime: The Evergreen Themes of “The King of Comedy”

The King of Comedy Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy (20th Century Fox)

One of the inspirations behind Joker takes a funny but more chilling approach to the angry white man trope.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.

So, Joker came out, and it turned out that this “dangerous” and “profound” movie didn’t have a lot to offer, save for an excellent lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s “angry disenfranchised white man” pastiche and endless homages to other, better movies, dressed up with clown makeup and given a coating of greenish-gray grime. It resembles no other film so much as 1983’s The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s darkly funny look at a delusional aspiring comedian who goes to extreme lengths to get noticed.

Whereas The King of Comedy satirizes the chasing of fame, and deluded men who are certain that they’re not just meant for, but entitled to greatness, with laser-like precision, Joker goes about it with a machete, wildly swinging it in all directions. The King of Comedy doesn’t try to slyly play it both ways and portray its protagonist as alternately a victim and a villain. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is, from the beginning, pushy and obnoxious, a relentless pest who demands attention.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The King of Comedy, particularly when compared to Joker, is that everybody Rupert encounters on his perceived road to success is kind, even encouraging, towards him. Despite forcing his way into talk show host Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) limousine, Jerry is courteous to Rupert, listening to his self-aggrandizing blather with something that at least looks like interest. The mistake he makes is by offering Rupert a vague invitation to “call my office,” which Rupert interprets as meaning not just that he’s officially gotten his big break, but that he and Jerry are now close friends.

It’s the same mistake that Rita (Diahnne Abbott), an old high school classmate of Rupert’s, makes. When he shows up at her job and cajoles her into agreeing to a date with him, Rita, like Jerry, gives in out of politeness. Rupert seems mostly harmless, another fast talking chump with big dreams. Even Jerry’s secretary, Cathy (Shelley Hack), who doesn’t know him from Adam, is far more patient and kind with Rupert than she needs to be, even when he all but demands a same-day response from Jerry about his audition tape. 

Cathy frames the rejection of the tape with encouragement, telling Rupert he can try again after getting some time in on the comedy club circuit. This absolutely correct piece of advice is treated by Rupert as a grievous insult. “I don’t have faith in your judgment,” he says, with the sort of condescension that you only hear when a man addresses a woman he’s convinced is beneath him (though Cathy already works in the industry he’s trying desperately to break into). It’s not until he’s physically removed from the office building by security that he finally walks away, still arguing that they’ve made a mistake, that Jerry’s his friend, that he’s meant to be a star.

The King of Comedy is remarkably prescient in portraying the kind of people you encounter, particularly online, who believe that for the simple act of existing, they’re entitled to an inordinate amount of recognition and gratitude.

He turns Jerry’s courteousness into something toxic as well, showing up with Rita at Jerry’s weekend house and all but trying to gaslight him into believing that he had, in fact, invited them to stay there. It’s unclear whether Rupert really believes it, or thinks he can simply wear Jerry down like he wore Rita down. That Jerry, who looks like he wants to wrap his golf club around Rupert’s neck, remains calm is a remarkable feat, particularly when Rupert accuses him of turning his back on his friends and playing games with them.

Let’s bring it back to Joker for a minute. Up until he becomes a vigilante of sorts, Arthur Fleck is constantly victimized, by the mental health industry, his employer, his co-workers, and strangers. Even the people he should be able to trust ultimately let him down. He’s known nothing but misery and isolation his entire life. While the film doesn’t necessarily condone his actions, it’s not shy about implying that society has it coming either. You keep kicking a dog, and eventually it’s going to bite you. Of course, the problem is, we all like to assume that when it comes to life, we’re the dog, and lashing out isn’t just acceptable, it’s justified.

Rupert Pupkin, on the other hand, we know nothing about his life, other than he wants to be a comedian. He appears to live with his mother, who is heard but never seen (Rupert’s whiny, teenager-like “MAAAAAAAAAAAA! PUH-LEEEEEEEASE!” is one of the funniest moments of the movie). We don’t know what he does for a living (if anything). It’s unclear if his seeming inability to pay attention to social cues or really listen to what anyone says to him is related to a psychiatric disorder, or if he’s just too far up his own ass to care. He’s simmering with anger because he’s not a star yet. Is he funny enough to be? Eh, not really. That doesn’t matter, though, it’s what he thinks he deserves.

There’s a saying: “Lord give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” The King of Comedy is remarkably prescient in portraying the kind of people you encounter, particularly online, who believe that for the simple act of existing, they’re entitled to an inordinate amount of recognition and gratitude. Rupert doesn’t want to do the work that goes into building a comedy career, playing clubs and competing with other comedians, he thinks he’s above all that, a natural talent, and pity the poor schlubs who don’t recognize that.

Though he maintains a rich fantasy life (including one hilarious daydream in which his high school principal officiates his wedding to Rita, while apologizing for not acknowledging his greatness sooner), it’s unclear just how unhinged Rupert really is. He’s certainly in better control of himself than Masha (Sandra Bernhard), the closest thing he has to a friend and the only person who calls him out on his bullshit. Rupert is a master manipulator, holding other people responsible for his own failures, even when they’ve been nothing but decent to him. When he finally gets his big chance, he doesn’t prove himself to be a major untapped talent — he’s merely okay, unremarkable. Nothing special. He’s put a bunch of people through one ordeal after another for nothing.

Joker is so over the top, so unsubtle, that it’s hard to take it seriously. You’ll rarely encounter someone quite as fundamentally broken as Arthur Fleck in your everyday life. Rupert Pupkin, however, you know him. You know a couple of him. That’s why The King of Comedy is subtly unnerving. We all know someone who is just a black hole of need and self-centeredness, while offering almost nothing in return. We all know someone whose inability to communicate in anything but jokes comes off as desperate and a little hostile. They’re bitter. They’re resentful, and we wonder at what point they’ll go from merely annoying to dangerous. We all know a Rupert Pupkin, and they’re all waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

The King of Comedy Trailer:

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