The Story: Labor Day weekend. The Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. You know, "Jerry's kids." But Jerry Lewis might not appear. He was going to "retire." Then, the MDA said he wasn't going to show up. "Maybe next year." Then, Jerry said he wasn't asked to appear. Then, the MDA said he "might"—his traditional rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" would be taped. Then, it was put off. Not sure what's going to happen. The situation—like the star—is a bit mercurial.
But, he'll appear here, in this scene from The King of Comedy (directed by Martin Scorsese), where Rupert Pupkin has lunch with his idol/mentor Jerry Langdon (a thinly-veiled version of Johnny Carson—they even share the same producer, Freddy DeCordova).
Well, they're not exactly having "lunch-lunch." The King of Comedy is a story about fame, and the insane greed for it. Rupert wants it. He doesn't have the talent to have it, but, in his mind (where a good deal of The King of Comedy takes place) he does. He deserves it. He just doesn't have "the contacts" to get his foot in the door. He's going to need very big clown-shoe sized loafers to be able to squeeze through to get his "Big Break." Really big, because Rupert has to get his "Big and Tall Shop" ego through, as well.
That ego has a lot of room in it, an Imax theater dimensioned amphitheater where Rupert plays out his famous fantasies (that is, fantasies about being famous), although the actual location is the basement of his mother's brownstone.
In this film, Scorsese plays a disorienting guessing game. Frequently, he'll cut from one scene to another, as simple as changing locations. But, often, they'll go from Rupert's day-to-day existence to a fantasy (without so much of a clue-in as a fade or the horried bell-tree gliss). Suddenly, you're there...and reality is different, things are not as you know them and you wonder if you're missing something (or, if seeing it in a theater, the projectionist has the reels flipped). You're not missing anything; Scorsese is not doing a documentary here, but, instead, showing the inner workings of Rupert's mind. There IS no difference between reality and fantasy* there—it's all one big muddled jumble. But, it's a focussed jumble.
Whatever Lewis' association with the telethon this year, The King of Comedy has some of his best, most subtle, acting in a career of taking things to the edge and beyond. This will do.
The Set-Up: Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), messenger-boy and aspiring comedian, is trying to set up a meeting with talk-host Jerry Langdon (Jerry Lewis) to audition for his show. He has to get noticed for the great talent that he thinks he is, and Jerry is the key. While he works at creating the life he deserves, he fantasizes about what that life will be like, even its pressures and frustratings.
LANGFORD Hey, Rupe, before I forget...I really appreciate you meeting me for lunch. I know how busy you are and how tired you are.
PUPKIN What are friends for, Jerry?
PUPKIN Talking about schedule, you're the one who looks tired.
LANGFORD Yeah, I know.
LANGFORD It's the show.
LANGFORD The pressure, the ratings.
LANGFORD The same guests, the same questions. I'm just not enjoying it anymore.
PUPKIN That's... the worst.
LANGFORD Listen, I... I really wish you would think about it again.
Eddie arrives. He is a small, slightly-bald man with greying hair and a goatee. He wears a foulard under an open-necked shirt. He carries a long sketch pad. He immediately sets up a small easel and starts sketching.
PUPKIN Again...Wait a minute. You-you're starting again. You're starting up again.
LANGFORD It's not that big a deal to think. I'm asking you to think.
PUPKIN I'm thinking. That's all I do is think day and night about it.
PUPKIN How can I not think about it? I mean, I've been sitting here at lunch with you... which I knew is why you invited me from the first place...
PUPKIN ...and all I'm sitting and eating here to get guilty with you, right?
LANGFORD I'm asking you to take over the show for six weeks. What's six weeks?
PUPKIN I'll give you anything, but don't ask me to do six weeks. I can't take over the show for six weeks. I can't even take over my own life for six weeks. And you're asking me to do something that's impossible!
MRS. PUPKIN** Rupert!
PUPKIN It's impossible!
MRS. PUPKIN Rupert!
PUPKIN Don't you understand...
MRS. PUPKIN What are you doing down there so late?
PUPKIN It's impossible! I'm trying to tell you that. What do want? You want the tears to come out of my eyes?.
LANGFORD There's gotta be...there's gotta be a way to work it out. It's just six weeks.
A YOUNG GIRL stands before PUPKIN and LANGFORD. She hands PUPKIN her autograph book.
GIRL Excuse me. Um, Mr. Pupkin? You think you could...
PUPKIN Yeah, sure. What's your name, dear?
PUPKIN - Dolores? That was my father's name.
PUPKIN (writing) To Dolores, who sensed greatness. Rupert Pupkin.
PUPKIN There ya go, sweetheart.
GIRL (reading it) Thanks, Mr. Pupkin.
PUPKIN Don't mention it.
The GIRL leaves.
MRS. PUPKIN Rupert! Rupert, who you talking to?
MRS. PUPKIN What is it?
PUPKIN Pleeeeease stop calling me!
PUPKIN It's terrific. It's great.
PUPKIN There's only one problem, though. He made-he made you bigger.
LANGFORD Would you answer me?
PUPKIN All right! You've got the six weeks! Don't bother me! I'll give you the six weeks! What can I say? You happy now?
LANGFORD You're a tough man, Rupe.
PUPKIN You got to be in this business. (laughs)
LANGFORD Ha ha ha ha ha!
Back in his mother's basement, Rupert laughs, then takes Jerry's place and laughs. The laughter builds.
The King of Comedy
Words by Paul D. Zimmerman
Pictures by Fred Schuler and Martin Scorsese
The King of Comedy is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home video.
* Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader show you the inner thoughts of Travis' Bickle in Taxi Driver (or rather let you hear them), but there are no fantasy sequences—Travis doesn't have that rich an imagination...at best, he can only interpret (through slow-motion and color-grading).
** By the way, the unseen Mrs. Pupkin? She's played by Scorsese's mother.