THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The King of Comedy tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) and Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Langford is a Johnny Carson-style late night talk show host and Pupkin the aspiring stand-up comedian who won't rest until he gets his shot. The thing of it is that Pupkin doesn't have the regular kind of ambition. He doesn't have a finely honed act or a will to write great jokes. He mostly just wants the end product; the success. Specifically, he wants Langford's success. And he tries to chip off some of that Langford magic several ways, first by more or less fabricating an encounter, then by hanging around Jerry's office, then his house, and finally by kidnapping the comedian.
Despite that plot turn this is no hipster heist caper. Scorsese's off-beat rhythms and De Niro's droll performance create a real air of danger and perversity. Pupkin practically attacks Langford and his employees (notably Shelly Hack) but without ever using more than words and his eyes. He goes from faux sincerity and humor to icy anger and bitter disappointment in an instant, a transition the very unbalanced Pupkin makes countless times in the film. This isn't a guy on the verge of snapping, we sense, but rather one whose been over the edge for quite some time.
If there's a symmetry to Scorsese's films (The Last Waltz and New York, New York are musical flip-sides, Mean Streets and Goodfellas zip up and down the mob totem pole) then Rupert Pupkin is a twist on Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. Both characters have no place in society but both drift through it fairly unnoticed. Pupkin, like Bickle, aspires to achieve some sort of greatness, although his is an entirely selfish one. He doesn't seem to even want the happiness that many people think financial success will buy them. He just wants the fame. In a way that makes him even more twisted than the famously psychotic Bickle. There are no reasonable explanations for Pupkin's obsession.
Still, it's an obsession that a lot of people have. The crowds gathered outside Langford's studio waiting for a glimpse or an autograph are identical to real crowds outside shows and concerts. Pupkin's "friend" Masha (Sandra Bernhard) is the kind of inexplicably wealthy nutjob with nothing to do with her money than to try and get near famous people. Her character is nearly as twisted as Pupkin's and Bernhard delivers a knock-out performance that stands as one of the best female turns in a Scorsese film.
Similarly, Jerry Lewis delivers a surprising and unpredictable performance. His Langford displays almost none of the wacky charm of Lewis' own character creations. He's a gruff, unfriendly man who draws a clear line between his television persona and his private one. More than most kidnapping victims, he's one that you can barely muster up any sympathy for.
The best performance in the film, however, is De Niro's. Showing just how brilliant he is (or was) he creates yet another unforgettably specific character, one with nearly no obvious similarities to Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, Johnny Boy or the young Vito Corleone. He once again shifts his shape, his face and his voice in such a way that he fully embodies his role. One of the few modern actors that could convincingly portray an inarticulate character, (unlike, say, Robin Williams, who, even in One Hour Photo is never more than an Elmer Fudd impression away from his zany comic persona,) De Niro is fully real as the pathetic Pupkin, manically trying to rationalize his irrational behavior to Masha, ineffectually trying to charm Langford and desperately trying to get his off-screen mother (Catherine Scorsese, delivering a killer voice-over) to quiet down long enough for him to practice chatting up his cardboard cutouts of Langford and Liza Minelli.
From the cork ceilings in Langford's offices to the cameos by Dr. Joyce Brothers and Victor Borge to the weird guy mimicking Pupkin's hand-movements, King of Comedy is one of Martin Scorsese's strangest and best films. When Pupkin finally gets to show off some of his routine the ultimate joke is that it really isn't that bad and with that ending, the director seems to be saying, it's all just a big, ugly, dumb joke anyway.
A deleted scenes section just features one short clip of Lewis on the street talking to some fans and a longer one featuring Lewis' entire monolog shot for the Jerry Langford show. Only a snippet appears in the film and it's interesting to see him work his classic comic mojo on Langford's slimy material. It's a shame that more deleted scenes weren't included (I remember reading about a Liza Minelli cameo that didn't make the final cut. Maybe David Gest had it pulled!) The disc also features trailers for the film.