With Joker in theaters this week, Polygon has resurfaced this piece from last fall that looks at the connections between writer-director Todd Phillips’ new movie and a classic: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime!
—Rupert Pupkin, The King of Comedy
Laugh and the world laughs with you!
—The Joker, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Robert de Niro will soon co-star in a film about a deranged man who fancies himself a comedian and is driven to crime by a late-night talk show host.
This time around, however, de Niro isn’t playing the insane up-and-comer, as he did in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 black comedy classic, The King of Comedy. Rather, rumor has it, Bobby D will be the superstar who spurs Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into madness in director Todd Phillips’ stand-alone movie about the Joker, nemesis of Batman and anyone taking Jared Leto seriously alike.
That distinctive chemical odor you’re smelling isn’t Smilex gas, but an air of superfluousness surrounding the whole project. The movie exists in parallel to the DC film universe, where a new Joker could pop up in The Batman and Leto technically remains attached to his own stand-alone Joker movie. Nor is it simply that the work of Martin Scorsese is cited as an inspiration anytime Phillips’ movie pops up in the trades. To an extent, that stands to reason: Scorsese is the film’s executive producer, and his signature star is in the cast. “Grim and gritty,” Taxi Driver, ’70s/’80s noir — word on the street, including what Polygon has heard from crew members, is that the Joker movie is an extended Marty homage.
Here’s the thing: The King of Comedy already is a near-perfect Joker movie. (It’s a near-perfect movie in general, but it’s a Joker-specific one, too.) It’s a glimpse into the mind of a man who’s convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he’s one of the funniest people in the world, and who’s determined that the world must be made in on the joke. Beneath the purple suit, green hair and grease paint-white skin, that’s what makes the Joker tick.
The King of Comedy stars de Niro as autograph hound and stand-up comic wannabe Rupert Pupkin, whose quest to do a set on the Tonight Show-esque program hosted by his idol, Jerry Langford — played with surly precision by Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role — leads him to kidnap Langford and demand airtime for ransom.
Rupert’s scheme isn’t on the level of the Clown Prince of Crime’s madcap murder sprees. The gun that he and his equally unstable partner in crime, Masha — brought to life by a magnificent Sandra Bernhard, who would have made a fantastic Harley Quinn — use to kidnap Jerry isn’t even loaded with a “BANG!” flag, let alone actual bullets. If violence from an unhinged individual is what you’re after, Taxi Driver makes more sense as a touchstone.
What The King of Comedy offers instead is a sense of becoming unmoored from reality and set adrift amid the tidal pool of Rupert’s brain. This is best encapsulated in his living space, a nowhere place dressed up to look like the set of his own talk show, complete with state-of-the-art recording equipment and giant black-and-white standees of his guests and audience. This is Rupert’s world; we just live in it.
On close inspection, though, that world extends beyond the walls of Rupert’s apartment, his childhood bedroom, his mom’s basement or wherever that place is supposed to be. (It’s left unclear, and I’d argue deliberately so.) How much of what we see throughout the film, no matter where or when, is filtered through Rupert’s warped, self-aggrandizing sensibility?
At times, the movie’s blurring of reality seems clear. A scene in which an awestruck Jerry, having just heard Rupert’s audition tape, grills the wannabe about his incredible talent in a mirror-walled office obviously never happened — Jerry not hearing the tape is a key plot point. A fantasy sequence in which Rupert’s high school principal appears on Jerry’s show to beg his forgiveness is just that: a fantasy. And it seems safe to assume that the announcer shouting endless variations on “Let’s hear it for Rupert Pupkin! Wonderful! Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen!” to a perpetually clapping audience, as the man himself stands grinning in a Lucifer-red suit, is not a thing that actually aired on television, even if you take Rupert’s post-prison comeback and fame — presented through shots of his face plastered across newsstands, his bestselling memoir and news-report voice-overs — at face value.
Perhaps you shouldn’t. Maybe the headlines, the book tour, the acclaim that flow from his kidnapping stunt are just as much a fantasy as anything else.
There’s a slipperiness to what unfolds in The King of Comedy that gets more unnerving as one dwells on it. When Rupert takes his high school acquaintance Rita (Diahnne Abbott) out for dinner, a man seated behind them spends the meal staring right at the camera, mimicking Rupert’s every move. Who is he? Why is he doing this? Why don’t Rita and Rupert notice? Is he even really there?
Elsewhere, during an altercation between Rupert and Masha on the street, a crowd gathers to watch, while rubberneckers gawk from across the street all around them. It sure seems like, in addition to whatever hired extras were on hand, Scorsese more or less let the cameras roll, capturing real New Yorkers’ real reactions to two people (at least one of whom they may have recognized as a big movie star) shouting at each other on the sidewalk. Yet among the crowd are also real-life punk luminaries the Clash and Don Letts. Just there.
That art-imitating-life-imitating-art quality is endemic throughout the movie. To play Jerry Langford, a comedy legend with a surly off-screen reputation, Scorsese cast ... Jerry Lewis, a comedy legend with a surly off-screen reputation. By all accounts, he was a decent guy on set, and if anything, his character is way nicer to Rupert than he deserves, but the bleed-through is unmistakable.
As for de Niro, his Rupert is an answer to his characters from both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: Travis Bickle, an unhinged stalker who becomes obsessed with a famous politician, and Jake LaMotta, a has-been boxer who awkwardly transitions into a career as a painfully unfunny stand-up. Other than Jerry himself, the other cardboard cutout Rupert positions in his fake talk-show set is Liza Minnelli, who co-starred with de Niro in New York, New York, directed by Scorsese (whom she dated).
In a similar vein, the voice of Rupert’s mother is provided by Scorsese’s own (adorable) mom and regular repertory player, Catherine Scorsese. But while we hear her yelling at Rupert, interrupting him while he’s in the middle of various delusional monologues, his stand-up set tells a different story. In jokes rife with obvious and uncomfortable truths about his life regarding his parents’ alcoholism and his ostracization in high school, Rupert says his mother has been dead for years. Why make up a detail that grim? Not even Rupert, who manages to get some legit laughs out of Jerry’s crowd, is out of it enough to believe that dead-mom material will bring down the house. Could the mom who’s constantly haranguing him be all in his head?
The more you think about The King of Comedy, the more these questions go to work on your brain. In a scene early on in the film in which Rupert and Jerry meet for lunch at the caricature-laden showbiz hangout Sardi’s, during which Jerry begs Rupert to take over hosting the show for a while so the burned-out comic can go on hiatus, Scorsese cross-cuts between the meal and Rupert alone in his basement, shouting his half of the dialogue to an illusory interlocutor while his mother harasses him from off-screen. This could be a literal series of events, taking place in a linear timeline, or it could be Rupert rehearsing an imaginary encounter in the here and now, with the Sardi’s scene taking place after his release from prison, when he’s become a big star and he and Jerry have affected some kind of rapprochement. Through Scorsese’s lens, The King of Comedy insists that you can’t really know. You can never really know.
One scene — one shot — sums up this solipsistic nightmare perfectly. During one of his basement rehearsals, Rupert stands in front of a Xeroxed audience plastered on a wall from floor to ceiling. He soaks in their canned, looped applause with his back to the camera, which slowly tracks away from him, down a hallway lined with mirrors ... back and back and back, further and further and further, until it’s impossible to reconcile the sheer size of this strange space with anywhere Rupert could possibly live. To paraphrase another great comic-book maniac, we’re locked in here with him.
The King of Comedy uses every trick in Scorsese, Zimmerman, and de Niro’s respective books to make us feel like an audience forced to laugh at someone who’s both unfunny (at least on purpose) and unwell, or else. The best comic-book Jokers have done this as well. In Frank Miller’s landmark The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker actually makes an appearance on a late-night talk show — a Letterman pastiche rather than a Carson homage — and gasses the audience to death. The Killing Joke, from Watchmen writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland, sees the Joker attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by subjecting him to a nightmarish funhouse ride featuring photographs of his nude and mutilated daughter, Barbara. And in Arkham Asylum, the influential graphic novel quoted above from heady writer Grant Morrison and lavishly psychedelic artist Dave McKean, the Joker lures Batman into the titular madhouse, at least as much for shits and giggles as in hopes that doing so will confront the hero with the reality of his own mental illness.
This is what has always made Jack Nicholson’s Joker, from Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman, a more frightening figure than Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight. Nicholson may camp it up in a way that’s anathema to today’s serious-business superhero fans, but while the Ledger Joker’s madness uses unpredictability as a smokescreen for systematically taking down Gotham’s power structures — from the mob to the government to Batman himself — in order to make the point that human beings are ugly at heart, Nicholson’s Joker has no such philosophical raison d’être. He’s just a sociopathic mob underboss who gets disfigured, suffers a severe psychotic break and decides, “Don’t fight it, feel it.”
As a result, he remakes the world around him in his own image more or less at random — hijacking news broadcasts to announce he’s poisoned Gotham City’s hygiene and beauty products, repeatedly interrupting various press conferences either to murder mob bosses or announce his next move, throwing a parade in which he tosses millions of dollars at the crowd before unleashing poison gas on them with the proclamation “and now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives.”
Most memorably of all, he breaks into an art museum (after poisoning everyone inside to death), proclaims, “Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds! Lawrence?” and then, blasting Prince because why not, joins his henchmen in defacing every work of art they see — except a Francis Bacon painting just fucked up enough for him to enjoy as-is. “I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist,” he deadpans to photojournalist and object of his affection Vicki Vale, revealing the disfigured face of his former goomah as his latest work.
The Ledger Joker’s pencil trick and the “do you wanna know how I got these scars?” speeches are spooky, sure, but one of these Jokers will only kill you if it serves some kind of purpose, while the other will do so as a punchline, a performance-art piece or for no reason whatsoever. I know which one I’d rather not be left alone in a room with.
This is the Joker I catch serious King of Comedy vibes from. And if we must have a Joker movie made in Marty’s image, it’s the direction I devoutly hope they’ll go in. Trap us in the funhouse mind of a maniac convinced he’s the funniest man in the world. Let’s hear it for the Joker! Wonderful! The Joker, ladies and gentlemen!
Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Esquire, and Vulture. He and his partner, the cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, are the co-editors of the art and comics anthology Mirror Mirror II. They live with their children on Long Island.