The film tells the story of a loner and homebody approaching early middle age whose name is Rupert Pupkin ("People often misspell it or mispronounce it," he says to a receptionist, who proceeds to announce him over the telephone as "Mr. Pumpkin.") Rupert (Robert De Niro) will do anything to get himself onto a TV comedy talk show hosted by his icon Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), despite a lack of ascertainable talent on his part. He tries wedging himself into Jerry's Limo after beating back a swarm of other devotees ("You can see that I put myself on the line for you," he says, holding up a bleeding palm); he calls Jerry's office and becomes a permanent spectral presence in its reception area; he convinces one of Jerry's assistants to listen to a tape of his act; he shows up uninvited at Jerry's weekend home and asks him about his golf game as if they are old friends. And when none of that works, he kidnaps his hero and threatens him with death until he allows Rupert to appear on the show for one five-minute opening monologue. "The way I see it," Rupert announces to his audience after this scheme succeeds, "better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime."
What this outline of a plot may not indicate, however, is just how intensely sympathetic this protagonist is, through it all. In his daftness, in his social failure, and in his seeming cluelessness, Rupert is disarming and sweet -- a kind of child. This touching, naïve quality is also, of course, a source of a great deal of the film's humor. In a scene at Jerry's office, an alarmed assistant learns that Rupert intends to camp out there until she has found time to sit down and listen to the tape of his act (which she probably means never to do at all, and just hopes that Rupert will go away). "You'll be wasting your time," she says, "I won't be able to get to it at least until tomorrow." "That's okay," says Rupert, "I don't mind."
As much as we feel warmly toward Rupert, however, the kind of laughing we do at his expense is partly, of course, a means of evading the uncomfortable pity we must otherwise feel. We want to convince ourselves that he is genuinely oblivious of his own condition, truly unaware of how others perceive him, because this will mean in turn that he does not really suffer. And this spares us the pain of feeling sorry for him.
The filmmakers will not let us get away so easily, however. They do let us have our laugh for much of the film, but they also reveal in places that, in the depths of his subconscious, Rupert is not kidding himself. In such unacknowledged mental crevices, he is fully in touch with the magnitude of his wretchedness. There is an interchange in one of his fantasy sequences that illustrates it with particular pathos. Jerry Langford, in Rupert's imagining, has just listened to the full tape of his performance. "You've got it, you've got the gift," he says, tiresomely, "You're a genius." He then grovelingly asks Rupert to let him in on the secret of where he gets his material. "Well," says the latter, "I look at my life, and I see the awful, horrible things in my life, and I make them into something funny."
These "fantasy" scenes are interspersed -- at times jarringly --with the real action of the plot, but they are nonetheless easily recognizable as the product of Rupert's inner delusions. This is conveyed partly by the exaggerated praise that every character in the fantasy apart from Rupert is compelled to heap upon him; but partly too by the sudden change in mental register that these characters seem to undergo. People who are literate, quick-witted, and funny in the "real world" of the film, will speak only in the lamest banalities and clichés as soon as they enter Rupert's mind ("If it ain't broke, don't fix it," advises the fantasy-version of Jerry Langford, after greatly heralding the statement as profound). The change suggests the intellectual limits of that character's imagination, perhaps, but it also reflects Rupert's insistence that in his world, only he can get the good lines. Everyone else exists only to woodenly lavish plaudits.
As pitiable as this character is, however, we can't quite trust our pity either-- no more than we can trust the film's apparent humor. There is another layer still to how we are meant to perceive this character. Rupert, after all, may in truth be a sad sack, but he also manipulatively exaggerates his victimhood in pursuit of his ends. In Rupert's mind, no one has ever suffered the way he suffers, and this is precisely what allows him to be so remorseless, at last, in his kidnapping and ransoming of his idol. In his final monologue, Rupert insists that his father never played with him as a child. In his fantasies, he imagines a former school principle of his declaring: "Not one of us at that school ever thought you would amount to a hill of beans. How wrong we were. I want to humbly apologize on behalf of..." etc. etc. We hear similar sob stories from Rupert's partner in crime, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) -- a character even weirder than himself. Mysteriously wealthy and clinically obsessed with Jerry Langford (even more so than Rupert, whom she knows through their shared membership in the Jerry-maniac subculture), Masha unhesitatingly tells her bound captive, after they have succeeded in kidnapping him, that "My parents never told me they loved me."
We in the audience have to wonder about the precise truth of such victim stories, when we see time and again how Rupert twists what is really quite innocent behavior on the part of other people into an elaborate drama of persecution in his mind. For all that Jerry and his staff try to get rid of Rupert by various means, after all, they are not especially cruel to him, from what the audience can see. The receptionist in Jerry's lobby is fairly solicitous and polite, while eyeing him with understandable suspicion. Cathy Long (Shelly Hack), one of Jerry's assistants, is given the thankless tasks of meeting Rupert at least four times in the reception area, listening to the tape of his act, and informing him with as much tact and patience as she can muster that he is "not quite ready for Jerry." She tells him kindly, however, that she is willing to come see a performance of his, if he manages to find work in a live club. When Rupert tells her he disagrees with her decision, she replies with a polite coldness: "That is your privilege, Mr. Pipkin."
When Rupert finally does have Jerry Langford as his literally captive audience, meanwhile, he can't prevent himself from laying on thick the victim story. "You couldn't even listen to the tape?" he asks the bound man, with emphasis. "Was that really too much to ask, Jerry?" To which a deflated Langford disarmingly replies: "You don't understand -- the volume of stuff that comes in.... I'm just a human being, with all of the flaws, and all of the traps...."
All of which suggests that being kind to Rupert is an exercise in filling a leaky bucket. In Rupert's mind, it would be the easiest thing in the world for other people to give him what he is due ("Just listen to the tape!"), but they are mysteriously unwilling, because they are unreasoningly cruel ("Was that too much to ask, Jerry?"). Such is Rupert's version. Yet the audience knows that in fact his demands are ludicrous, far outside the bounds of any fair share he might lay claim to. We begin to suspect that Rupert is simply insatiable.
Rupert's immense hunger is joined, meanwhile, to a desire to lord whatever he does obtain over everyone else. His capacity for cruelty is more tragicomic than it is frightening, in this film, since he has little opportunity to exercise it -- it shows itself mostly in fantasies that will never be realized (he imagines himself at one point calling from the window of a penthouse down to the rest of the rabble below "Too bad suckers, better luck next time!" William Ian Miller comments, in an essay that first brought my attention to this film: "Rupert links himself with one well-attested Christian tradition which makes the joys of heaven the delight of watching the pains of the damned in hell."). Yet one has the definite sense that Rupert would not hesitate for an instant to rub everyone else's noses in it if he ever did achieve his success, and he is willing to sell out any friends he has if it will advance him toward the fulfillment of his fantasies.
He and Masha, for instance, share for part of the movie a kind of desperate fellowship, founded in their mutual infatuation with Jerry and their shared unconscious realization of its hopelessness. ("Remember when I gave you my 'Best of Jerry' album?" says Rupert at one point, giving us a rare glimpse into the prehistory of their friendship, such as it is.) But at the same time, Rupert openly relishes any slight ascendency he can gain over Masha. When he spends several days in Jerry's lobby, for instance, Masha believes that he must really have gotten an "in" with the shared object of their fetishism. "You must really be loving this," she says, angrily. Rupert replies that he is embarrassed even to be seen with her, now that he has reached the top. "Jerry and me have a real relationship," he says, "not some fantasy world."
Then there's Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a former high school crush of Rupert's whom he drags along with him when he decides to crash Jerry Langford's weekend residence. He spends most of the scene at Jerry's home trying to pretend that the famous comedian and he are old friends, perhaps because he actually believes it to be true. He is also hoping to impress Rita with evidence of his extraordinary success and fame. Rita eventually catches on, however, that they were not invited and that Jerry has no love for, and scarcely a recollection of, Rupert Pupkin. She makes a heartbroken face, surreptitiously swipes something expensive off Jerry's mantlepiece, and then tries to convince Rupert to drop the whole matter and leave. ("Use your ears, Rupert, the man is telling us to go.") Rupert, who up until this point has being fantasizing about Rita as his "Queen" for life, and who planned the whole weekend as an attempt at wooing her, now entirely sells her out as soon as she begins to jeopardize the higher fantasy. "Don't listen to her, Jerry," he says, "She's just a girl who works in a bar."
What this film is really about then, is power, in all its nakedness -- the quest for power, in its most remorseless and relentless forms. It is about gobbling up everything around you and still wanting more. It is also about what a paltry, ugly, and ultimately futile thing this same process turns out to be.
This is what makes The King of Comedy such a characteristically Scorsese movie. Nearly all his best films circle around these same themes; each of his protagonists is motivated in much the same way as Rupert. The worst fate that any of them can conceive of is to be a "schmuck for a lifetime" -- to end their days as "just another schnook," as Henry Hill defeatedly christens himself in the final scene of Goodfellas. They will do anything to avoid humiliation, and for them this typically means seizing the first chance to humiliate others. Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street is perhaps the most completely voracious of all this breed of Scorsese creations. For him too, the worst horror he can think of is to have to ride the subway to work, to drive an old, beat-up car at the side of an "ugly wife." He is absolutely convinced that his decadent lifestyle is the only one anyone wants, that anyone who could behave as he does, would do so.
One is tempted for a moment to want to divide Scorsese's films beyond this underlying unity, however. Granted that most of them are about the same desperate desire to be "king for a night," and the same obsessive terror at the prospect of being "schmuck for a lifetime" instead; one still notes that some of these movies are about people who actually make it to their kinghood; and others are about the longterm schmucks. In the "king" category we have the De Niro character in Casino; we have Henry Hill, before his fall; we have Jordan Belfort and Jake LaMotta. Among the schnooks and the schmucks and the sad sacks, we have the protagonist of Taxi Driver, and now of course we must add Rupert Pupkin.
That's temptingly neat, as I say -- until we realize that each of these characters is in fact every bit as pathetic and inwardly defeated as every other. The characters in Wolf of Wall Street can barely stand their own company, but the end of it; they will try anything not to be left alone with their own thoughts and "ideas," such as they are. When Jordan Belfort goes sober toward the end of the film, all he can say about the experience is how incredibly "boring" everything has become. All he had ever found interesting were the things he put into himself. Who he actually is, by contrast, offers him nothing of value, no substance, nothing to chew on. Similarly, stripped of his money and his cronies, there is nothing left of Henry Hill beyond them by the end of Goodfellas.
Within each bottomlessly self-aggrandizing, unappeasably vindictive person, there is a deep belief that in fact they are the world's victims-- that no one else has every suffered as much as they do -- that everyone else is just waiting to do the same to them, so they had better squeeze whatever sadistic pleasure they can out of life so long as they have the upper hand. There is a scene in Nathaneal West's Miss Lonelyhearts, when the protagonist's dreadful boss pulls him aside to tell him: "You spiritual lovers think that you alone suffer. You are mistaken." He then lets loose with the stories of everything he has to put up with from his wife and friends, all the petty grievances he has maintained and nursed for years. A similar interchange unfolds between the narrator of The Golden Notebook and a former lover, who has gone on to be a fantastically wealthy tycoon. For all his social esteem and power, the narrator needs only to prod him ever so gently, before he pulls out the proverbial violin and showers every other person in his life with maudlin recriminations. If people such as this are cruel to others, it is only because it seems in their minds a fair recompense for their own pain.
Yet each Scorsese protagonist, however apparently pathetic and self-defeating, will not repay any sympathy we lend them with gratitude for any length of time. Each achieves, after all, in the course of their respective films, just enough power to devote it to savaging others, to rubbing their noses in it, to humiliating them in turn-- as payback for what they ostensibly suffered.
Each of these characters, in short, is king for a day and schmuck for a lifetime. The speaker in John Davidson's 1894 poem "Thirty Bob a Week" describes the situation well:
"I step into my heart and there I meet/ A god-almighty devil singing small, [...] /If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,/ He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all. [...] And I meet a sort of simpleton beside,/ The kind that life is always giving beans; [...]/ And the god-almighty devil and the fool [...]/ Are my good and evil angels if you like./ And both of them together in every kind of weather/ Ride me like a double-seated bike."The devil and the fool. The King and the Schmuck.
For practically every one of these films Scorsese was reproached at the time of its release for the supposed "amoral" quality of its proceedings. The punitive moral sense is not satisfied by Scorsese's plots, the critics charge. The protagonist of Taxi Driver, for instance, despite acting out of the most dubious motives, is ultimately esteemed a hero in the public's eyes. Jordan Belfort may be upset at first to go to jail - for an instant he believes that "the chickens came home to roost, whatever the hell that means," as he puts it -- but only until he "remembers that he's rich," after which point he thoroughly enjoys himself in a minimum security lockup, and then goes on to a second, equally lucrative career as a shyster self-help guru. As for Rupert Pupkin's scheme to get on television, it actually works, and he is rewarded grandly for it by obtaining the media's attention (if we believe that the closing scenes of the film are not just an additional fantasy on his part). Critics have objected to every one of these films in turn, on moral grounds, charging that they give people the wrong idea. Scorsese is accused of glamorizing the lives he depicts, of suggesting that success and glory follow upon wrongdoing.
And it is true that no one ever gets his "comeuppance" in the Scorsese universe; yet this is precisely the sense in which these films follow a more sophisticated moral arc than what the critics are expecting. The "comeuppance" narrative, after all, -- the "crime doesn't pay" story -- in fact implies that being the "king for a night" is the truly desirable end. It implies that fulfillment really does lie in ruling the roost in the nakedest kind of way and humiliating everyone else. If it did not imply this, why else should it assume that the moral sense can only be satisfied by having "bad" people cast down from this position, instead of leaving them to occupy it?
What Scorsese's movies suggest, by contrast, is that being the "king for a night" is inseparable from being the schmuck for a lifetime. Lording it over everyone else and forcing them to lick the crumbs from their humble pie is itself the pathetic thing, the action of the sad sake. We see it in Jordan and Rupert and Henry Hill and all the rest. Their cruel exercise of power is a kind of powerlessness; their delight in another's humiliation is at the same time a confession that there is nothing they can find within themselves that is a source of sufficient pride or strength or interest to keep them going.
And yet, we are being hypocritical if we leave things on such a holier-than-thou note. There is a reason we sympathize so readily with Rupert Pupkin, after all, in spite of good reasons to dislike him, in spite of a justified suspicion that he would not repay with gratitude any kindness we did show him. The reason is that each of us has more than a little "devil" in us, and more than a little "fool." Each of us is king for a night, and schmuck for a lifetime.