Johnny Carson. David Letterman. Jay Leno. Larry Sanders. Rupert Pupkin. Famous, household name comedians who went onto achieve superstardom as late-night TV show hosts.
Legends of the small screen…hang on, Rupert who? Do you remember him? Of course not. Neither do I. Other than being the leading antagonistic protagonist in a brilliantly dark, fictitious meditation on the vain, soulless search for fame, he lives in a world of make-believe. He is the fly at a picnic who cannot be swatted. He is the spot that cannot be removed prior to a date. He is the friend who tags along at parties uninvited.
Mark Kermode opined, in his damning indictment of Seth Rogen’s 2009 lame effort Observe and Report, that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had already remade their seminal 1976 nocturnal netherworld nightmare Taxi Driver as a comedy, an achievement that Rogen had laid claim to.
Instead, they had, in the good doctor’s opinion, merely rehashed the already unremarkable Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009). Scorsese and De Niro, on the other hand, had made a comedy as dark as the ace of spades, a London Taxi or the finest Columbian/Ethiopian coffee.
If De Niro’s Travis Bickle began Taxi Driver somewhat unhinged but with good intentions before descending into full-on psychosis (I’ve seen Travis diagnosed with many psychiatric disorders over the years in books/articles/magazines being one of the most famous/iconic/analysed characters in film history) then his Rupert Pupkin is Travis Bickle turned up to eleven in a full Spinal Tap sense, and he never regresses.
The irony is that he is never a visible threat or appears as such. Robert De Niro has become an icon of cinema from playing some very loud, threatening, abusive, verbally and physically violent characters in between some great very sweet and tender performances. His Oscar-winning performance as real-life prize fighter Jake La Motta in 1980s Raging Bull, the hand book for modern method acting, is as despicable a character that has ever been depicted in cinema.
Rupert, however, is mild mannered, never swears – note the films parental guidance certification – He rarely gets noticeably angry, except at his psycho-like mother, who always hollers at him off camera in a Norma Bates-esque way, and his crazy friend Masha who’ll be dissected later. When he does, he acts with such little threat you’d be more intimidated by a little rabbit with boo scribbled on its face. If anything, in terms of voice tone, De Niro is as close to his real middle class, son of artists, Greenwich Village comfortable upbringing voice as he has ever been. The heavy New York of 1973’s Mean Streets and Raging Bull is eschewed in favour of a more softly spoken approach.
Incidentally, many mistake Travis Bickle as a New Yorker. He is actually mid-western, a nuance that goes unnoticed in the overwhelming praise of his famous cabbie performance. This performance has largely gone unnoticed. Although deservedly nominated for a BAFTA, the academy shunned the film in favour of best picture winner tear-jerker Terms of Endearment and three other forgettable nominees – The Right Stuff is alright – and De Niro’s performance in favour of five others, won by Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies. Edward Norton cites De Niro’s performance as his favourite of all time. Kermode and Scorsese called it his greatest. High praise indeed.
Nowadays, a De Niro greatest performance list would be laughed out of the room, something Rupert frequently has done to him, if Pupkin is not included. An aspiring stand-up comedian, Rupert idolises and studies Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis – Frank Sinatra turned the role down), stand-up comic turned successful late-night TV show host. Lewis plays Langford as the total antithesis of his earlier on screen zany, wacky, nutty professor persona. He is a consummate professional at work but a weary eyed, cynical, burned-out celebrity outside of office hours who values his privacy. Rupert seizes his moment and weasels his way into a private meeting with Jerry in his limousine after frankly scary tactics from Masha.
He states his intention that he wants to be just like Jerry and that he wants a spot on his show despite his opposition to actually performing live in comedy clubs. He practices alone in his room and the audience in his head always laughs. He creepily waxes lyrical with cardboard cut outs of Langford and Liza Minnelli (De Niro’s co-star in Scorsese disaster New York, New York – it has its moments), in his bedroom, which is designed like a talk show set.
It is a precursor to the Kramer-led Seinfeld episode where he reassembles the Merv Griffin set in his living room conducting interviews with all and sundry. Will he eventually seek to become more than Jerry and to supersede him? Unwilling at 34 years of age – too old, apparently – to start at the bottom, he wants his shot now. Charles Bukowski lived his life, somewhat seedily, but earned his stripes and didn’t have a career until in his 50s. Ricky Gervais’ breakthrough came at 40. This is an anathema to Rupert yet he reluctantly accepts Jerry’s advice, given under virtual duress, “you have to start at the bottom…the bottom is the perfect place to start”. A pearl of wisdom is offered, “you don’t say ‘hey folks, here’s the punch-line’, you just do the punch-line”. Rupert fails to empathise and sense the fear of his virtual detainee in such a strange encounter. A mediocre joke from Rupert is followed by an offer of a business card. This is a clear swat from Jerry but an opportunity for Rupert.
Nobody remembers his name. Rupert who? Rupert Pipkin? Pumpkin? Are Jerry’s production team capable of rebuffing Pumpkins, sorry, I mean Pupkin’s right to a TV gig? There is a hilarious slapstick sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a silent comedy film whereby Rupert is chased down a corridor by security guards only to reappear again running in the opposite direction with security still in pursuit. Viewed from a camera inside a room looking out into the corridor, it has me in stitches. Eventually caught, he is told in no uncertain terms to never return again without an appointment or the authorities will be called.
He is aided largely by his partner in crime Masha. Their relationship is a very odd love-hate dichotomy. Neediness binds them. The need being Langford. Masha stalks Jerry like a great giant stalking thing. Portrayed by Sandra Bernhard, not everybody’s cup of tea – I find her repellent mostly – she is cast perfectly by Scorsese, who utilizes all the worst annoying elements of her persona to great effect here. Meryl Streep, double Oscar winner by that point, and with previous great on screen chemistry with De Niro in The Deer Hunter, couldn’t have bettered her performance. She should have got an Oscar nod. In a hilarious scene, they clash in a busy New York City street and quibble and bicker over who has a greater right of access to their property Jerry. Look out for a split second cameo from the great 1970’s/80’s band The Clash, credited as ‘street trash’.
Scorsese again really gets under the skin of New York City. The vast size and crowdedness is portrayed well. The image of Rupert desperately clutching onto a public telephone (his office number) in anticipation of an extremely important phone call whilst a long queue berates him is hilarious. It is a different side to the sleaze and mirth of Taxi Driver and the street energy of Mean Streets. Surrealism abounds.
Undeterred, Rupert drags his reluctant girlfriend to Langford’s holiday home, his hideaway, uninvited. The promise is that Jerry is his friend and collaborator. This delusion is enough to convince his former high-school fantasy to accompany him after she rejected him at school. In truth, in one of the films rare weaknesses, it is a thankless role played without vigour by De Niro’s wife (now ex) at the time, Dianne Abbott.
The role serves little purpose other than to fill the empty trophy cabinet in Rupert’s love life thus satisfying his teenage wet dream of dating a cheerleader, the most beautiful girl in school, now working late night shifts as a bartender. The point is made sharply but acted meekly. Pam Grier would have burned the screen down even with such little to do, but she wasn’t rediscovered until 1997 by Quentin Tarantino in the similarly unappreciated Jackie Brown, now slowly getting the recognition it deserves. The encounter at Jerry’s hideaway is awkward and tense to say the least. De Niro used anti-semitic epithets on set, not included in the film, to truly rile Lewis.
Alas, the show goes on. The darkness increases. You’ll never laugh at a plastic toy, chewing gum, sentence prompts, a knitted sweater and sellotape in quite the same way ever again. Will you get the chance to see if Rupert lives up to his own hype…
Upon its release, and following on from De Niro’s Oscar success for best actor in Raging Bull, Scorsese was shamefully shunned in favour of the capable but steady Robert Redford for his direction of family drama Ordinary People – The King of Comedy was an expensive flop. To my knowledge, Scorsese’s vision was largely untouched yet sank like a box of tea being thrown into the Boston harbour. Despite the hatchet job done to many films released in the 1980’s, butchered by hacks, then later restored – Blade Runner, Once Upon A Time In America and Heaven’s Gate (debatable) are perfect examples – Scorsese making what appeared to be merely a wacky, zany comedy was deemed unacceptable by critics. True filmmakers indulge themselves as they like within certain limits. Paul Thomas Anderson slipped seamlessly from long, multi-layered/multi-character drama Magnolia to the darkly wacky Punch Drunk Love onto the truly epic There Will Be Blood without vilification.
Obviously expecting a brutal left jab followed by a knockout right hook of a movie like ‘Raging Bull’ or a gunshot film of .44 Magnum proportions that would be used in Africa for killing elephants like Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy was heckled off the stage like a misunderstood comedian in front of an ignorant, unappreciative audience and was ranked one of the worst films of the year by many respected critics. Over 30 years later it has been reappraised as more than mere wacky high jinks, but as a dark comedy as black as cup of Joe that wouldn’t be out of place on agent Dale Cooper’s table in Twin Peaks.
Way ahead of its time, it pre-empted The X-Factor, American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent (even Cambodia has ‘…Talent’), whereby wannabees, whether talented or not, life’s winners or losers, attempt to make it to the top of the tree with little work or no effort. The 2000/2010’s may have reappraised the band Oasis as overrated, of their time, Beatles rip-offs, Britpop rubbish etc but Oasis earned their stripes in pubs and clubs for years before their 1995 – 1997 zenith. As did many, many others.
Whether you appreciate him or not, Bill Hicks had to die to gain true recognition, whereas instant fame, contracts, wealth and adulation is hoisted upon winners of glorified talent contests that should be reserved for Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or Butlins holiday camp. Truly a nadir for modern culture. With a few notable exceptions, the general system exists to provide instant gratification then the back door to obscurity. Step forward…Joe McElderry! Singing sensation X-Factor winner. Remember him? Nope, me neither really. Although those present at Rage Against The Machine’s free 2010 Finsbury Park gig will always remember him with fondness. in 2011 ITV had a stand up comedy X-Factor. It was not a success. Nevertheless, even the most talentless in society can become Z-list celebrities, get book deals, front covers of magazines, This Morning/Loose Women interviews. God bless Jade Goody’s racist little soul.
Is Rupert Pupkin a king? Or a schmuck? Whether or not, irrespective of circumstances, he always sticks to his motto: “It’s better to be king for a day than a schmuck for a lifetime.”