Before There Was Cringe Comedy, There Was ‘The King of Comedy’

Martin Scorsese’s divisive 1983 satire failed at the box office, but it helped set the stage for the modern comedy era of embarrassment, awkwardness and futility
Before There Was Cringe Comedy, There Was ‘The King of Comedy’

Even Martin Scorsese didn’t like The King of Comedy at first. In the mid-1970s when his pal Robert De Niro showed him the script, written by Paul D. Zimmerman, Scorsese found it hilarious, “(b)ut I thought the movie was just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show.”

When The King of Comedy opened in the U.S. in early 1983, many didn’t find the film remotely funny. Tanking at the box office, the movie received decent reviews, but the critical consensus was that it wasn’t up to the level of Scorsese’s great 1970s output with De Niro. The King of Comedy’s commercial failure began a period in which Scorsese fell out of favor with Hollywood, but his story has a happy ending: He made later classics like Goodfellas, won an Oscar for The Departed and has a great new film opening this weekend, Killers of the Flower Moon. He turns 81 next month and is among the most revered living directors. But after The King of Comedy, none of those later laurels were a sure thing.

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It’s probably not surprising that The King of Comedy has enjoyed a reputation overhaul in recent years, now widely hailed as a misunderstood masterpiece. Anyone can dig Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but only the “real” Scorsese fans adore The King of Comedy — it’s a way of separating yourself from the casual moviegoers who don’t truly “get” this genius auteur. At some point in everyone’s Scorsese worship — myself included — you will find yourself raving about The King of Comedy in order to demonstrate your cinephile bona fides. The movie is so dark, so prickly, so “Is it a comedy or is it a horror film?” unsettling that loving it is a badge of honor. 

As a result, the film has become the cool Scorsese flick to cite. In their Letterboxd “four favorite films” videos, actresses Pauline Chalamet and Julie Delpy both listed The King of Comedy. A recent ranking of everything Martin Scorsese has made placed it above agreed-upon masterpieces like Raging Bull and The Age of Innocence. What was once a commercial bomb has been rescued and widely, correctly acknowledged as one of the man’s best works.

There are a few explanations for The King of Comedy’s changing fortunes. One factor is that, when it was released, a movie about a disturbed, stalkerish creep preying on a celebrity was probably hard to take. (John Lennon had been gunned down in December 1980. President Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in March 1981.) Scorsese’s film fed off that poisonous energy, casting De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a going-nowhere stand-up who is convinced that if big-time TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) would just give him a shot, he could show the world how funny he is. But Rupert is awkward, off-putting, needy and, most importantly, not very funny — just one of many hopeless dreamers who really ought to give up. Instead, relentless Rupert continues to hound Jerry, eventually concocting a plan to kidnap him to get what he wants. 

The story’s ugly real-world parallels might have been terrifying in 1983, but 40 years later, these sorts of parasocial relationships are just the way of things. Yes, the murdering of stars isn’t commonplace, thank god, but that constant desire to become famous is all over Instagram, reality TV and YouTube. Truth is, you don’t actually need to kidnap a Jerry Langford anymore — if Rupert were starting out today, he’d probably be doing lame TikToks.

But the movie has also proved prescient in another way. It’s stupid to claim that any movie or television show “invented” a genre, but one of the other big reasons The King of Comedy has had such remarkable staying power is that it was a precursor to one of the last couple decades’ most popular strains of comedy. Back in the early 1980s, people weren’t referring to films or sitcoms as being cringe comedies. But you can feel The King of Comedy’s aura of discomfort all over modern humor. 

It’s been long-rumored that at one point during the script’s long development process, Andy Kaufman had been approached to play Rupert, with Cabaret filmmaker Bob Fosse attached to direct. It would have made sense: Kaufman was one of the progenitors of a style of adversarial comedy that resisted the traditional set-up/punchline of mainstream humor. He liked to challenge and antagonize — he wasn’t there to deliver conventional jokes. And he wasn’t alone: Everyone from Steve Martin to David Letterman was pushing the envelope in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enjoying knocking a crowd off-guard with their surreal, bizarre and proudly silly bits. But Kaufman went even further in terms of daring to alienate people. Maybe you would laugh, maybe you wouldn’t — as long as it provoked a reaction, that was all that mattered.

Into that landscape strode The King of Comedy, which thrust into the foreground a thoroughly off-putting individual. Of course, Scorsese and De Niro had done this before with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but in those movies, Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta were compellingly brooding and tortured individuals. If you weren’t paying attention to the films’ subtext, you’d even swear those men were “cool” antiheroes wrestling with their demons, perhaps worth emulating for their grim worldviews. (Sadly, a lot of viewers weren’t paying close attention: As Scorsese lamented recently, “As we know now, tragically, it’s a norm that every other person is like Travis Bickle.”) 

But although they were all played by the same actor, Rupert wasn’t like those other guys. There was nothing “cool” about Rupert’s patheticness. Nobody would risk laughing at Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, but we couldn’t help but snicker at Rupert as he vainly tries to get Jerry Langford’s attention. Well, maybe you didn’t laugh — maybe you cringed — which is why, for years, it was a bit of a debate whether The King of Comedy was a comedy or a drama. How much were we supposed to find funny about Rupert’s clear mental illness? (In one of the film’s most striking moments, Rupert performs to a wall-length photo of an audience laughing. We hear the laughter on the soundtrack, but it’s all in his head — as may be the entire scene.) And although Rupert isn’t as overtly violent as Travis and Jake, De Niro played him with such nervous energy that it seemed like he could snap at any moment. Is Rupert just another talentless nobody? Or is he legitimately dangerous? Audiences cringed at The King of Comedy because of how pitiful Rupert was — but, also, because we feared what he might be capable of. 

In the wake of the Lennon and Reagan shootings, moviegoers weren’t prepared for Scorsese’s bitter commentary on fandom. But today, now that we’re inured to all the wannabes striving for their 15 minutes, that shock isn’t as potent. But what’s still fresh is the film’s attitude toward discomforting humor. Rupert may be a failure, but in modern pop culture, he’d be in good company. Shows like The Comeback and Hacks have plumbed the comedic depths by portraying entertainers struggling mightily. Before then was Extras and the unimpeachable The Larry Sanders Show, which even included a Rupert reference in an episode. None of those series’ characters were as woeful, or as deranged, as Rupert, but these programs all understood that lifting the veil on funny people — poking at their foibles, their wretched humanness — was a great source of unbearable comedy. With most of these shows, the point was that no matter how famous certain folks get, they’ll always be insecure — always chasing after some new brass ring they think will make them happy. But poor Rupert has never gotten any ring, until The King of Comedy’s finale where he, at last, savors a couple moments in the spotlight.

Years after Scorsese’s film was written off, cringe comedy exploded this century as “alternative comedy” and “anti-humor” went mainstream. Pretty soon, this edgy style of laughs was quite popular. Zach Galifianakis interviewed Barack Obama while he was president for Between Two Ferns. The American version of The OfficeRicky Gervais’ original an early cringe landmark, became a beloved sitcom. Even if people can’t always describe cringe comedy accurately, they can recognize it in Curb Your Enthusiasm or I Think You Should Leave or the mockumentaries Christopher Guest used to do so well. The genre is big enough now to make Sacha Baron CohenNathan Fielder, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia rich and famous. 

But despite all that success, a surlier, snottier version of cringe continues to flourish in the margins. Indeed, there’s a whole subsection of good low-budget indie comedies — like Funny Pages — devoted to making you squirm while you endure their intentionally insufferable characters. The feebleness of these charmless individuals’ attempts to navigate the minutiae of their petty little lives is funny precisely because of how tortuous it is. Earlier filmmakers had mined the deadpan comedy of everyday individuals — think of Jim Jarmusch’s terrific 1984 movie Stranger Than Paradise — but cringe hadn’t yet become its own comedic pillar. What The King of Comedy foretold was an era in which we’d stop looking away from the pain and humiliation of public faux pas and, instead, peer right into the abyss, seeing how much excruciating misery we could stand. We laughed because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing — we laughed because we wanted to create some distance between ourselves and those poor SOBs on the screen. We didn’t want to think we were like them.

That tenet of cringe comedy — humor that encourages our scorn, while secretly provoking our fear that we’re not that dissimilar from who’s being mocked — infuses every moment of The King of Comedy. Nobody aspires to be Rupert — with his loud outfits, annoying manner and unfashionable haircut, he’s a pariah — but De Niro brings just enough humanity to the guy that you can place yourself in his shoes, remembering those times when you were the fool, the loser, the laughing stock. Scorsese has always tried to understand his misanthropes — we see what drives them — and even with Rupert, his most repellant protagonist, there’s a sliver of recognition. We’ve all chased after aspirations that were never going to come true. We’ve all looked like asses because we couldn’t take the hint. Movies had been full of lovable losers, but Rupert wasn’t lovable, and The King of Comedy wanted to see if you’d recoil or laugh at his delusion — a delusion that leads Jerry to be put in a scary situation as Rupert calmly negotiates with the TV network to let him be on air in exchange for the talk-show host’s safe return. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull presented us with tragedies. The King of Comedy made Rupert a joke, but also made you ask if the joke was also on all the mediocrities like you in the audience. 

The great irony, of course, is that while Rupert wouldn’t be someone you’d want to emulate, so many future comics have, in a sense. When you watch something like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or I Think You Should Leave, you encounter unremarkable characters who are malcontents and ill-adjusted, unable to function in the world. They share with Rupert a stunning uneasiness, the humor stemming from their inability to overcome their fatal failings. With The King of Comedy, we weren’t sure how to deal with the car-crash wreckage that is Rupert, but in recent times, we’ve been trained to appreciate this abrasive style of comedy — to embrace Michael Scott’s agonizing ineptness. (Worth mentioning: Steve Carell is reportedly a big King of Comedy fan.) What once was off-putting has become trendy. 

What would Rupert Pupkin make of all this? Near the end of the film, this so-so stand-up delivers his credo: “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.” It’s a mantra that has served cringe comedy well. While there are so many different forms of cringe, many of them emphasize the embarrassment of failing again and again, focusing on luckless bastards who are convinced that, one day, they’ll come out on top. The King of Comedy was dismissed in its time, but thanks to the rise of cringe comedy, it’s now hailed as a conquering hero. Martin Scorsese is sad at the preponderance of Travis Bickles in the world today. The King of Comedy’s belated acclaim suggests that, perhaps, there are a lot of schmucks around, too — including ourselves, if we’re willing to see ourselves in them. 

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