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Probably the oddest of all of Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese’s collaborations, The King of Comedy is one strange movie.  This entertaining dark comedy examines the desperation of aspiring celebrities.  It’s a must-see for De Niro fans, but others might dislike The King of Comedy as much as audiences did upon its initial release. Entertainment Tonight called it “the biggest flop of the year” in 1983.

King of Comedy, The
Fox Home Entertainment has put together a fine disc for The King of Comedy’s DVD debut.  Fans of the movie--and there are more than you’d think--won’t be disappointed, and anyone looking to see the film for the first time should be pleasantly surprised with the disc.

Many people are quick to compare The King of Comedy to Taxi Driver, but the relationship between the two movies is debatable.  In my opinion, King of Comedy is actually the darker, more disturbing movie.  In Taxi Driver, in which De Niro plays a violent cab driver who’s disgusted with society, the main character’s intentions are to a certain extent good.  Travis Bickle wants to clean up the streets of New York City.  In King of Comedy, however, De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin simply wants to have his name on the streets.  Bickle wants to help society; Pupkin wants to help himself.  He wants to be an international celebrity--and he lets nothing get in his way.

The King of Comedy is a story about desperation.  Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a struggling comedian.  He doesn’t work at comedy clubs, though.  He works in his basement, in front of a gigantic mural of a late night talk show’s studio audience.  Rupert idolizes late night talk king Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and every weeknight, it seems Rupert waits outside the set of The Jerry Langford Show alongside dozens of other die hard fans (although Rupert pathetically envisions himself as somehow superior to the other Langford geeks).  With the unintentional help of another Jerry fan named Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard, Rupert manages to jump into Jerry’s limo, where he makes his first attempt at getting a gig on the Langford Show.  This uncomfortable first meeting sets of a chain reaction of confrontations which culminate in Rupert and Masha teaming up to kidnap Jerry so Rupert can secure his gig.

"I wouldn't lie to you, Rup!"
But wait--it’s funny, too!  Although it’s clearly not an all-out laugh riot, The King of Comedy puts a humorous spin on the disturbing issues it tackles.  Rupert has a number of hilarious dream sequences in which he fantasizes about Jerry telling him what a great comic he is.  These sequences give Jerry Lewis a chance to lighten up a little otherwise, his character doesn’t crack a smile through the entire movie.  Jerry Lewis was a good casting choice--although the filmmakers offered the part to fellow Rat Pack gods Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin first.  Lewis comes off as very tired and frustrated--his character Jerry Langford is fed up with people like Rupert Pupkin, and it shows.

I think this is one of Robert De Niro’s best performances.  Seriously--it’s right up there with Raging Bull.  He’s so perfect as the desperate, ruthless comic that it’s scary.  De Niro shows what an actor can do simply by changing the tone of his voice a little bit.  There’s something about the way Rupert Pupkin talks in this movie--especially in the basement talk show rehearsal scenes--that conveys a creepy balance of comedic charisma and pure evil.  The rest of the cast is great, too.  Sandra Bernhard (in one of her only major movie roles) is equally scary as crazed fan Masha, who’s almost as deranged as Rupert.  Tony Randall cameos as a guest host.

This is probably the closest thing Martin Scorsese’s ever made to a straight comedy--that’s if you don’t count After Hours (1985), which is so far MIA on DVD.  Scorsese brings just the right amount of tension and suspense to an already intense dark comedy.  Martin Scorsese also has a short cameo as, well, a director (what else?)

So many older movies--specifically comedies--get stuck with terrible transfers when they’re reissued on DVD.  Luckily, The King of Comedy avoids this bad fortune completely.  It’s got an excellent 1.85:1 Widescreen transfer.  The movie’s 20 years old, but it’s hard to tell from the transfer.

"Jerry--always coming up with these great lines!"
Visually, this is definitely one of Scorsese’s more colorful films--from the sets to the costumes (specifically Rupert’s tacky suits).  The picture is completely clean and bright, and all the colors are rich.  There seems to be some noise and grain in the darker scenes (see Chapter 3, which takes place inside Jerry’s limo), but it’s hard to notice, and there’s little-to-no edge enhancement.  Overall, it’s a great transfer, especially for an older movie.

Unlike the video, The King of Comedy’s audio hasn’t aged so well.  The disc comes with two English tracks, one the original mono track; and the other a new Dolby Stereo track.  Given it’s only a stereo track so there is no surround, the dialogue is the main focus point of the audio.  On the Dolby Stereo track, I think the dialogue sounds a little hollow, but that’s to be expected from a stereo track--it could be worse.  The mono track isn’t much different, except that the dialogue tends to sound scratchy when people start yelling (see Chapter 16).  That’s the main difference between the two English tracks.

The disc also includes a French mono audio track.  The box (incorrectly) advertises a Spanish mono track as well, but it’s, well, not there.  English and Spanish subtitles are included.

So many older movies are put on to DVD without so much as a trailer.  Again, The King of Comedy avoids this.  It seems that Fox Home Entertainment has recognized that this film has a good-sized fan base and the movie has been given some decent supplements.

Scorsese--a man who talks way too fast.
First, we have “A Shot at the Top”: The Making-of The King of Comedy.  This is a not-too-shabby documentary that runs for about 20 minutes and includes retrospective interviews with director Martin Scorsese and co-star Sandra Bernhard.  It covers everything from the early days of the film (Scorsese turned it down at first... kinda like he did with Raging Bull), to the less-than-favorable reaction it got from audiences.

Next is a still gallery, and there are also two promotional items--the theatrical trailer and a commercial that aired on Canadian TV.

Finally, we have two deleted scenes.  The first, “Jerry meets his fans,” is less than a minute long.  The second, however, is five minutes long.  It’s “Jerry Langford’s monologue,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Personally, I don’t think the monologue is that funny, but that’s beside the point.  The only notable thing about this scene is that if it had been left in the movie, it would have been the only time we get to see Jerry Langford be Jerry Langford: TV host.

The King of Comedy is definitely not for everyone.  People expecting a hilarious De Niro comedy a la Analyze This will be put off by the film’s serious undertones, and anyone expecting a dark glimpse into the mind of obsession probably won’t like the tongue-in-cheek humor.  So I’m not sure who to recommend this movie to.  If you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out. The disc’s got a great, rich new transfer, and audio that’s not quite up to scratch, but not distractingly bad, either.  Thankfully, Fox threw in some extras as well, a rarity for older films with less-than-huge fan bases.