Joking around with Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (sorta)

chachachad

So I don’t normally review a lot of movies for this site, and I definitely don’t deal with movies that don’t star comic book characters, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. It’s kind of related.

Maybe.

I’m not totally sure, to be honest.

But when the Joker movie trailer dropped, and the scenes with Joaquin Phoenix appearing on a late night show with Robert DeNiro found their way the masses, immediately people pointed to the Joker movie being a spiritual successor to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. I had not ever seen the film, and thought it would be fun homework before the Joker movie so that I could pick up any connections in the theater.

DeNiro has since gone on record to stay there’s not a direct connection per se, but a connection “in a way” (Here’s a link for the Indiewire story). So there’s that. 

I guess I should give you the run-down of the movie. It’s currently available to stream as part of Amazon Prime Video if you want to watch yourself and play along.

Rupert Pupkin, an autograph hound who fancies himself a stand-up comedian, tries to get himself a spot on an analogue for the Tonight Show. Keep in mind, this is the same time when Johnny Carson was making comedians’ careers with a simple invite to stay after the set. DeNiro plays Pupkin, who starts the movie waiting for an autograph outside of the Jerry Langford show, our Carson analogue. Pupkin, thanks to holding back a character he may or may not have been in cahoots with already, ingratiates himself into a one-on-one conversation with Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, where Langford promises to look at his tape.

From there, we see the delusions that Pupkin is working under as his imagination runs wild with the possibilities. In Pupkin’s mind, that was his big break and he and Langford are now the best of friends. They’re such great friends that eventually Langford’s going to ask, nay, beg Pupkin to take over his show for six weeks. That’s contrasted with the harsh reality of the situation. When Pupkin shows up at Langford’s office and insists Langford told him to stop by for a meeting, we get to watch the situation escalate until Pupkin is escorted out of the building. Then the delusions continue and Pupkin coerces his way (along with his high school-crush-fifteen-years-later date whom Pupkin is trying to impress) into Langford’s home while Langford is out golfing. That doesn’t go well, either. Then, the movie culminates when Langford and another autograph hound/celebrity stalker played by Sandra Bernhard kidnap Langford and hold him not for a cash ransom, but in exchange for a spot on the show. Pupkin gets his time, is taken into custody, and then (as I perceived it) delusion-ally believes he can parlay this whole experience into a success story just as soon as he finishes his six-year prison stay.

The movie is disturbing.  It doesn’t paint Pupkin as a sympathetic figure by any stretch, but the audience can definitely feel empathy towards the character once he finally gets to his stand-up routine, which reveals quite a bit of the abuses Pupkin has suffered throughout his childhood. Factor in his interactions with the public at large, and it’s not difficult to feel sadness or pity towards the character. His delusions are real enough that the audience believes that he believes them…yet they’re delusional enough that we all know better. His interactions with other crazed characters highlight he’s a crazypants dude in a crazypants world. I keep using the word delusional instead of dangerous to describe Pupkin, but he’s certainly both. I think there’s a bit of projection on my part that I think the character wouldn’t really hurt his hero when he kidnaps him. But when dealing with someone that is ill, all predictions and projections go out the window.

To give some background on the film, the movie was released in 1983, and reportedly Scorsese initially passed on the script. It wasn’t until after he had gained a semblance of fame that Deniro got him to reconsider and they made the film together.  It was an uncomfortable experience–so much so that Scorsese avoids watching the film to this day. It seems like all involved thought the unnerving story was one worth telling. It’s also worth noting that star Jerry Lewis got into some of the directing on the movie, notably in the scene where his character encounters a fan at a phone booth on the street.

Oh, I love you! Please sign this!

The fan asks for an autograph, gets it, and then asks Jerry Langford to talk on the phone to her nephew. He politely but firmly declines, and she goes on to wish that he gets cancer.

What, you won’t talk on the phone after you gave me something for nothing! You’re the worst human ever!

That escalated quickly. Allegedly, it recreates an autobiographical experience from Jerry Lewis with one of his dear “fans.”

The thing is, I totally believe it.

First and foremost, the connection people feel with celebrities is a very real thing. Between social media, traditional  media outlets like tv, newspapers, and radio, nontraditional media like podcasts, there are so many more outlets for folks to feel connected and hear from the people they admire. People pick sides, choose factions, and develop an almost cult-like devotion in some cases. This is also aided by the convention circuit that runs around fan circles. What used to be comiccons or Star Trek meetups have morphed into pop-culture conventions, and the pop culture convention subculture has permeated the mainstream. There, the connection between performers and fans is routinely exploited for cash or comped travel expenses.

The celebrities, the handlers, the managers, etc. all have a part. They’re more than willing to take that experience of engaging with their fans and milk it for everything they can.

Once upon a time, one of my side gigs involved working with folks at conventions that would seek out celebrity autographs. I remember some big name celebrities charging what I considered to be an outlandish price for an autograph, but then going on to double that price for an autograph on a “premium” item. What constitutes a premium item? Pretty much anything outside of a glossy 8 by 10 inch photograph. Signing that piece of paper? $80. Oh wait, it’s actually a box the size of a piece of paper? That’ll be $150.

Personally, I always went back and forth about my own involvement; was I enabling a culture that was manipulating folks for every last dime or enabling a culture that helped bring people some joy and positive connections?

I’m thinking it was a bit of both, honestly.

On the fan side of the fence, the majority of the people I met were well-adjusted, regular folks, willing to pay to have a chance to make a brief connection with people that held some importance in their lives. I can’t knock that. I’ve never been an autograph seeker, but I once paid $40 and stood in line for hours to have a picture with Stan Lee. I got to say thanks to someone whose work holds great personal value to me. It was totally worth it. I won’t presume to speak for Stan, but he met hundreds of fans that day and raised money for worthwhile charities in the process. I assumed that was a win for him, too.

I would later learn about some of the dark underbelly of Stan’s later appearance and his handlers and I don’t like to think too much about it.

To return from my tangent, I have to believe most people I encountered to be well adjusted. I’ve seen the joy and delight that can result from these experiences. I’ve seen celebs take the time to talk to a fan who was feeling down and help to build them back up, even if just for that day. I don’t want to paint with a broad brush and say that the majority of the people I saw were delusional psychopaths–both the autograph seekers and celebrities–but at the same time, I wouldn’t be shocked if some were. I’ve seen people come back and have a story they’ll tell with joy for the rest of their days. I’ve seen the folks who had a negative experience–and boy, did their reactions lead me to believe that all might not have been well. The sharpie smudged, the celeb was tired or rude, or a further request wasn’t granted and all of a sudden there’s fire behind the once adoring eyes of a fan–similar to that scene with the lady in the phone booth.

Too often, ‘I love your work’ turns to ‘I hope you get cancer!’

It’s difficult, though, in that try as folks and organizations might to set clear ground rules and expectations for these interactions, there’s always that person who believes these interactions are something more. In their eyes, the lines are more blurred, the expectations are beyond the reality of their situation. It can be kind of scary when that switch is flipped on the wrong type of person. It goes beyond someone receiving a damaged product–and don’t forget that these interactions are a type of product–to someone being jilted on a personal level.

But to go back to a word I used earlier–I feel like so much of our culture has escalated even further, especially from 1983 when the King of Comedy was initially made, in terms of the connections or the perceived connections between celebrities and fans. The connections between fan and star has escalated. The costs of interactions have escalated. And—this is where I get a little unnerved—the consequences of the missteps also seem to have escalated.

Whereas the King of Comedy was an artful movie, one meant to unnerve and to show a downside to the fan/celebrity relationship, it was contained.

This is where the Joker movie scares me.

Not this Joker. Nobody cared much about this one.

In the King of Comedy, the consequences are mostly mental trauma. Not to say that’s forgivable, either, but I was able to convince myself (true or otherwise) that even though Rupert was delusional, he wasn’t dangerous–not in the way that the Joker is dangerous. The consequences of the Joker can be mental trauma, but in most stories, there’s a lot more, too. Plus, the Joker expands beyond just a movie that grown ups looking for high-minded cinema.

This isn’t the Ceasar Romero “Clown Prince of Crime,” Jack Nicholson’s Batdancer,  the Animated Series Crime Boss, or the comic book agent of chaos. If it’s like the movie it’s “spiritually” connected to, it’s real, and it’s delusional–often at the same time. Only this time it’s not some sad sack regular guy with a fake weapon–it’s the homicidal Joker. The Joker doesn’t usually just attack one Bat-person–he goes after the whole community. He’s usually an obstacle to be overcome, not the main rooting interest.

Even if he doesn’t reach that dangerous point in this movie (although I think he does), you don’t have to look far to find it.

The Joker isn’t a character looking for empathy or sympathy or understanding. The Joker’s got some really bad ideas and a dude in bat pajamas that usually balances him out.The thing is, I haven’t seen or heard a trace about any bat pajamas in this movie. This movie doesn’t seem to come with a Bat-mask and a way to stop the bad guy–this movie is going to show how to start a bad guy.

Here, the PG-13 danger is balanced and packaged literally in s bat-mask.

I worry this Joker movie is dangerous. I worry that it’ll cut too close to experiences that some people have, and since the Joker is escalated, they’ll escalate, too. I hope Warner Brothers knows what they’re doing, releasing this movie about a comic book character in this time where everything else feels so escalated already. I guess what I’m getting at is that the King of Comedy is disturbing enough; I hope the Joker doesn’t try to escalate that in this spiritual sequel.

Final grade for the King of Comedy: a disturbed A. lt did what it intended, and shined its light where it wanted to shine it–just like great art does. A week later, I’m still thinking about it, worrying about it. I just want it to stop there. I’m kind of hoping on a societal level that the Joker is nowhere near as good at being disturbing.

Until next time, I’ll be anxiously awaiting the disturbed results! Hopefully they’re simply disturbing and arty and not terrible and tragic in reality!

OoOOOoooOooOoooOOooooh!

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