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Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Ed Herlihy
Writing Credits:
Paul D. Zimmermann

Rated PG.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Digital Stereo
English Digital Mono
French Digital Mono
Spanish Digital Mono
English, Spanish

Runtime: 109 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 12/17/2002

• “A Shot At the Top” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Still Gallery
• Trailer
• TV Spot


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The King of Comedy (1983)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 10, 2003)

In the early Eighties, the dangers that come with celebrity seemed more prominent than ever. In short order, lunatics killed John Lennon and also attempted to slay Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Martin Scorsese’s 1983 flick The King of Comedy didn’t delve into such murderous tendencies, but it took a look at the nature of those obsessed with fame.

Comedy follows an aspiring comedian named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). The movie starts with shots of rabid fans outside of the New York studio where they shoot the popular late night program The Jerry Langford Show. As Langford (Jerry Lewis) tries to make it to his car, fans pounce, and Pupkin manages to finagle his way into the automobile. Pupkin badgers Langford for a try-out, which the TV host promises to accommodate if he contacts his secretary.

Pupkin makes attempts along those lines and proves quite persistent, as he shows up at the studio day after day to pester Langford’s assistant Cathy Long (Shelley Hack). Pupkin also tries to woo Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the former beauty queen of their high school. He attempts to impress her with his allegedly burgeoning career, but this generally falls flat.

Essentially the movie follows Pupkin’s escalating nuttiness. He becomes more and more obsessed and delusional as the movie progresses, especially after the folks at the TV studio rebuff his advances. With the assistance of another scary fan named Masha (Sandra Bernhard), he takes his determination to be a star to more desperate levels.

Although Comedy often makes things a bit too simplistic, it still provides a lively and provocative look at psycho fans. Scorsese nicely balances the scary elements with comedy, and Pupkin proves to be an interesting character for De Niro. Back in 1983, he’d made his name with intense roles such as Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle, while Pupkin offers a seemingly more innocent character.

In reality, Pupkin appears just as badly flawed and threatening as the others, as he’ll clearly do whatever he feels he needs to do to achieve his goals. De Niro adopts a doughy and nebbishy look for Pupkin, which makes him appear less hostile, and the actor brings a level of vulnerability and awkwardness to the character that doesn’t appear in his other roles. I like the fact that De Niro doesn’t force the part and create a more overtly vicious personality. In some ways, that makes Pupkin seem scarier, as he doesn’t demonstrate such obvious aggression.

The remaining cast also does quite well. On the surface, Masha seems even nuttier than Pupkin, and for most of the movie, she comes across like the one more likely to actually harm Langford. Despite these more overt signs of insanity, Bernhard offers a wonderfully natural take on the part. She feels real and smooth in the role and presents a nicely understated sense of menace. Even when Masha displays wildly nutty behavior, Bernhard fits in the behaviors cleanly and creates a terrific performance.

I never liked Jerry Lewis as a performer, but he provides very solid work as the TV show host. Admittedly, he plays himself to some degree; the part doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. However, Lewis offers a naturalistic turn that fits in with the story well. He doesn’t fall back on gimmicks or schtick and reins in his normal comedic personality well. I admire the fact that Lewis doesn’t attempt to go to any extremes in the part, as I worried that he’d emote heavily. Instead, his work melds nicely with the rest of the movie.

Scorsese displays the material in a fairly dry and unemotional manner, though I think he makes the movie seem a bit too simplistic. On one hand, no one ever attempts to make Pupkin or the others appear sympathetic or likeable, and the flick doesn’t go into extremes in either direction. Scorsese also doesn’t tip how much of the movie falls into the category of fantasy or reality; it seems very possible that many apparently factual segments actually take place in Pupkin’s head.

However, the movie tends to view things one-dimensionally. For example, when we start to learn about the causes of Pupkin’s mental issues, these come about in a rather predictable way. I won’t divulge the root problems, but they don’t seem inventive at all. These concerns make the movie a bit less effective, as they provide easy topics.

Nonetheless, I rather liked The King of Comedy. The movie’s aged quite well over the last 20 years, and though it seems somewhat thin at times, it provides enough provocative material to make it compelling. In addition, a collection of excellent performances add real spark to the flick.

Cool cameos department: look for the Clash as “street scum” in one scene. In addition, Fred de Cordova plays the producer of the Langford program. Many will remember de Cordova as the longtime real-life producer of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio C / Bonus C+

The King of Comedy appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture seemed generally positive, but it displayed a few too many problems to earn a grade much above average.

Sharpness looked good for the most part. Some wide shots came across as a little soft at times, but most of the movie appeared reasonably crisp and detailed. Jagged edges and moiré effects created no concerns, but some light edge enhancement appeared on occasion.

Print flaws varied. At the start, the movie looked fairly clean, but it became dirtier as it progressed. I noticed various examples of grain, grit, specks and marks. The defects never became overwhelming, but they did present more concerns during the second half of the film.

Colors largely appeared positive. The movie used a naturalistic palette, and the tones looked nicely rich and vibrant. Black levels also came across as deep and rich, and contrast appeared solid, but shadows caused some concerns. Low-light sequences seemed somewhat opaque. For example, the shot in front of Rita’s apartment building looked too dark, and the candlelight dinner showed similarly thick images. Some parts of The King of Comedy looked great, but others seemed rather messy and drab. Ultimately, I felt this meant the DVD deserved a “B-“ for picture.

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of The King of Comedy sounded very average for its era. For the most part, the mix remained essentially monaural. The side speakers displayed some general ambience at times, but not a lot of material showed up from those channels. Unfortunately, difference elements tended to bleed lightly between speakers, which made the imaging fairly vague. The surrounds added a little music and some crowd noise during the TV show, but otherwise, they didn’t seem to offer much information.

Audio quality appeared mediocre. Speech tended to sound somewhat thin and lifeless, but the lines remained intelligible and distinct. Dialogue came across as acceptable despite the blandness. Effects seemed flat as well, but those elements were reasonably clear and accurate despite the lack of range. Music showed decent fidelity; the score didn’t seem vivid or bold, but it was clean and passably rich. Some light hiss appeared but otherwise no concerns occurred. The audio for The King of Comedy didn’t harm the film, but it didn’t add anything to the presentation either.

We find a smattering of extras on The King of Comedy. The supplements start with a newly created featurette called A Shot at the Top; The Making of The King of Comedy. This newly created 18 minute and 40 second program mixes film clips, some archival images, and interviews with director Martin Scorsese and actor Sandra Bernhard. It covers the origins of the project along with some character and story interpretation, production notes about some scenes and settings, and reactions to the movie. Both Scorsese and Bernhard appear upfront and candid about the flick, and the brief featurette provides a surprisingly illuminating and lively look at the movie.

Next we get two deleted scenes: “Jerry Meets His Fans” (37 seconds) and “Jerry Langford’s Monologue” (five minutes, 50 seconds). The first one just offers another of Jerry’s experiences with folks on the street; it seems funny but insubstantial. The “Monologue” actually includes the whole videotaped section of the Langford show. Boy, does the material stink! I couldn’t help but wonder if they made it intentionally bad, but I don’t think so. Anyway, unfunny as it seems, it’s cool to get the uncut segment on the DVD.

A few minor supplements finish the DVD. We find the movie’s theatrical trailer as well as a Canadian TV spot. The latter offers an odd clip with no dialogue other than some quick and cheesy narration at the end: “The King of Comedy” – it’s no laughing matter”. Finally, a fairly ordinary Still Gallery ends things with 34 images.

Not one of Martin Scorsese’s better-remembered flicks, The King of Comedy nonetheless merits a spot alongside his hits. The movie provides a deft and stimulating look at celebrity obsession, and it keeps things light and lively enough to underscore social points while it doesn’t beat us on the head with ideas. The DVD provides erratic but adequate picture and mediocre sound with a small package of extras. While not a special DVD, it gets the job done, and with a list price of less than $20, the movie itself merits your attention.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1935 Stars Number of Votes: 31
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