Scorsese expertly subjects us to the cringe-making, distasteful experience of watching a fantasist relentlessly defy the reality around him. Like Scorsese's more blatantly violent Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy is not for the squeamish. Although somewhat gentler, Rupert has much in common with Taxi Driver protagonist Travis, who was also played by the remarkably versatile De Niro. Rupert is the grown-up unloved child who desperately believes that the adulation of strangers is the cure for the abuse and lovelessness of his youth. When Jerry kicks him out of his weekend house, Rupert shoots back, "Now I know I can't rely on anybody." The comment illustrates the depth of Rupert's misunderstanding of human relations.
The movie addresses the universal problem of fame and the way it can corrupt both the famous and those who are obsessed with them. Certain references, though, are particular to Scorsese's era. Jerry Lewis was once one of the most famous comic actors and directors on earth. Kids will probably be largely unfamiliar with other comedy greats mentioned -- Mel Brooks, Sid Cesar, and Ernie Kovacs -- and frequent talk show guests of the 1970s and '80s, including Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, and Gore Vidal. Similarly, in Rupert's fantasy, Jerry treats Rupert to a surprise on-air wedding. This echoes the 1969 wedding of musician Tiny Tim, a figure of bemusement and ridicule on the talk show circuit. But Rupert is thrilled and feels especially vindicated when his high school principal apologizes on national television for mistreating Rupert 20 years before. The apology is at the heart of what Rupert is after -- validation -- and what, Scorsese seems to suggest, everyone is after, in one way or another.