Fame is the perversion of the natural human instinct for validation and attention.
Heathcote Williams, playwright
Robert Pupkin is a 34-year-old who lives at home with his mother in Queens and works during the days as a messenger boy. Yet in his mind, he is "the King of Comedy." For years, Rupert has idolized Jerry Langford, the host of television's top-rated late-night talk show. Tortured by his own anonymity, Robert gathers autographs to lessen the abyss between himself and America's celebrities. He wants to appear on "The Jerry Langford Show" and prove his talent as a standup comic.
"The King of Comedy" is a film about the desperate need to exist publicly which is so American," states Paul Zimmerman, former Newsweek critic and author of the screenplay. "It is the ultimate outgrowth of the question what do you do?" One night Rupert steps up to help Langford reach his limousine in the midst of a wild crowd of fans. He is rewarded with a chance to tell the superstar about his dream. The somewhat peeved celebrity puts Rupert off with "call my office." The hungry supplicant reads the response incorrectly he assumes Jerry Langford is now a friend.
Director Martin Scorsese, who dealt with the high price of fame in Raging Bull, approaches the subject from another angle in this movie: "The King of Comedy is about people falling in love with idealized images of each other and how misleading and selfish that can be. "
When Rupert visits Langford's office, his production assistant (beautifully played by Shelley Hack) tells him to create a tape of his comic monologue. In the basement of his mother's home surrounded by a life size mockup of the set of "The Jerry Langford Show," Rupert puts together a sampling of his work. But mostly, he fantasizes about taking over the show as guest host or even being married on the program to Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a high school acquaintance who is now a barmaid.
"Unfortunately in America today," theatre director Michael Bennett has observed, "either you're a star or you're nobody." Told by Langford's production assistant that he's not ready for an appearance on the show, Rupert and Rita go to the celebrity's country home and are kicked out. More desperate than ever, he teams up with Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a well-to-do stage door groupie who adores Langford, and they kidnap the superstar. Rupert demands a guest spot on the Langford show as his ransom. While Masha has her way with her captured idol in her townhouse, Rupert's dream at last comes true as the FBI and television executives capitulate to his demands.
Cultural critic John Lahr, who wrote a 1973 novel called The Autograph Hound, has stated "Celebrity proliferates in proportion to society's fear of its decay. It is not reason but faith that Americans seek. The nations' philosophical first principle has become 'I hope, therefore I am.' In this glittering immediacy, the famous celebrate the gratifications of the moment but discourage the values of protracted effort, wisdom, permanence and the calm on which greatness is built."
Paul Zimmerman's laser-sharp screenplay and Martin Scorsese's harsh moral vision lay bare the trivialization of culture when celebrity reigns. Robert De Niro's Pupkin comes across as an empty and pathetic man whose only distinction is his drivenness. Jerry Lewis's Langford vividly conveys the dead-end street of celebrity status that isolates individuals, turns them sour, and drains them of whatever creative juices they once had.
In the fame game, everyone is a loser: the public that can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, the fans who live surrogate lives, and the stars who, more often than not, burn out on the treadmill of success. The King of Comedy is not a very funny movie but it is definitely in tune with one of the major cultural warps of our times.