The King of Comedy

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
The King of Comedy Movie Poster Image
Scorsese movie about the perils of fame has mature themes.
  • PG
  • 1983
  • 105 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The yearning for fame is corrosive and destructive. An abusive childhood can warp a person for life. "A guy can get everything he wants as long as he pays the price."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Rupert is a delusional loner who lives with his mother and fantasizes about being a comedy star. He speaks imaginary dialogues aloud between himself and celebrities who praise his talent and greatness. Although he has never performed his act in front of an audience, he's a surprisingly comfortable performer.

Violence

A couple kidnaps a celebrity. They hold a toy gun to his head and bind him with tape. In a comic monologue, a man describes being kicked by his alcoholic father and beaten weekly by school bullies. A crowd outside a TV show stage door grows unruly and pushes against the show's host as he tries to get to his car. An unhinged fan who snuck into the car lunges at him when he gets in. He immediately jumps out.

 

Sex

A mentally unstable woman strips to her bra and panties in the hope of making love with the celebrity she has kidnapped.

Language

"Bastard," "scum," and "schmuck."

Consumerism

Fame and the cult of celebrity are products sold to consumers through television, movies, and the music industry. Mentally unstable people may be especially susceptible to misleading images of life as portrayed by the famous.   

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An adult drinks a beer in a bar. Rupert's parents were alcoholics. He reports that his drunken father kicked him. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The King of Comedy is director Martin Scorsese's disturbing examination of the corrupting nature of fame and its troubling effect on mentally unstable people who seek it. The language never gets much rougher than "bastard" and "schmuck," but the central character is a sociopath who obeys no boundaries, neither social nor legal. After he resorts to kidnapping a comic whose talk show he wants to be on, his comedy routine reveals a childhood dominated by abusive alcoholic parents, bullying, and beatings at school. A mentally unstable woman strips to her bra and panties in the hope of making love with the celebrity she has kidnapped.

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What's the story?

In THE KING OF COMEDY, 34-year-old Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) lives with his mother and dreams of fame. He believes in his greatness and belittles others who seem a lot like him, fellow autograph hunters waiting for hours to make contact with celebrities. Rupert's egomania and exaggerated self-importance lead him to sign his own autograph book. He pretends to host his own talk show in front of cardboard cut-outs of celebrities in his room. Obsessed, he imagines a close friendship with the renowned comedian and talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Although Rupert has never performed stand up anywhere but in his own room, he's certain that Jerry will invite him, the self-anointed "king of comedy," to perform on the show. Rupert fantasizes that Jerry is his friend and blends that fantasy into reality when he shows up at Jerry's country retreat, with suitcase and a girl, as if he'd been invited for the weekend. After Jerry kicks him out of the house, Rupert and an equally unstable fan, Marsha, (Sandra Bernhard), kidnap Jerry, threatening him with a toy gun. Marsha comes on to the bound-and-gagged Jerry while Rupert leverages the kidnapping to get himself a spot on that night's show. FBI agents cart him away after the show airs and Rupert serves nearly three years in federal prison. After that, his autobiography becomes a best seller and is optioned for the movies. Note that Scorsese plays a small role as the talk show's director. 

Is it any good?

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 DriverThe 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. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how people view the celebrities they see in movies and on television. Why do you think it's common for fans to feel that they personally know these strangers? How is this addressed in The King of Comedy?

  • What do you think might make someone seek the love and approval of celebrities? Do you think people who are disappointed in their actual lives might seek to enhance themselves through the approval of people others admire?

  • This movie looks at the rewards of celebrity but also the downside. Aside from the possibility of being stalked and kidnapped, what do you think might be a drawback of being famous?

Movie details

For kids who love to laugh

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