Martin Scorsese, Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro reunited for a screening of “The King of Comedy” Saturday night that ended the Tribeca Film Festival on a memorable and magical showbiz high.
“The King of Comedy” was an overlooked gem when it was released in the U.S. in 1983. It didn’t find its audience back then; people didn’t know what to make of it, even whether it was a comedy. Scorsese received a Palme d’Or nomination for the film at Cannes, and it also received five BAFTA nominations, including for Lewis as best supporting actor, but it was overlooked by the Academy. Lewis, who played his role straight and understated for a change, imbues his character with a tragic dimension.
De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a nerdish man in his 30’s, who fantasizes he’s a great comic. He shadows his idol, late night television host Jerry Langford (Lewis), who first politely rebuffs him and then gets furious when Pupkin begins to stalk him. Pupkin and his cohort, a loony Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who is a similarly obsessed fan, kidnap Langford in exchange for Pupkin’s shot at fame, a 10-minute spot on Langford’s show to do his comedy routine.
When “The King of Comedy” was released, Scorsese and De Niro were the most creative director/actor duo making movies, but audiences found it an odd movie without the emotional payoff of “Raging Bull,” which came out two years earlier.
But to revisit the movie now, it is eerily prescient about celebrity, stalking, and terrorism, among other things. And what innocent times! Back then you could actually walk into a Manhattan office building and past security guards and get into someone’s office without an appointment.
At Tribeca, Lewis, who is 87 and ailing, bypassed the hooplah and went through the front entrance of the theater.
But comedian and actor Richard Belzer stopped to chat with me on the red carpet. He said of Scorsese and De Niro, “They’re both incredibly proud of the movie. I literally idolize Jerry.”
Belzer added, “And when they were making the movie, it was a wonderful experience for everyone because Marty had studied Jerry’s book on directing, so he was actually using some of Jerry’s lessons in the movie, and it’s going to be great to see the three of them on stage talking about the film.”
Lewis is having a real moment; in only a few weeks he’ll be honored at the Cannes Film Festival, where he will receive an award and his new film, “Max Rose,” will be screened. Belzer will be going to Cannes with his pal. When I said I didn’t know Lewis’s health was up to making the trip, Belzer replied, “I didn’t either.”
Before the screening, De Niro came out and sheepishly said, “I haven’t seen ‘The King of Comedy,’ I think for at least 25 years, so I’m very curious to see it. I hope I’m not embarrassed.”
De Niro introduced the cast, along with Scorsese, and then, “The longest reigning king of comedy, Jerry Lewis,” who came onstage to thunderous applause.
After the screening, De Niro and Scorsese came out, sat in swivel chairs and chatted about the film. They recalled that the film came about over a conversation they had in Cannes in 1976, where “Taxi Driver” screened. De Niro tried to convince Scorsese to make the film, but the director didn’t get around to reading Paul D. Zimmerman’s script until four years later. “I didn’t quite get it,” he said. “He (De Niro) understood it immediately, and I sort of discovered it as we went along.”
In many ways, it has the look of an old-fashioned film; it has long conversations and no fast cutting. “It was coming at the end of a period of filmmaking in Los Angeles that had sort of ended,” Scorsese said. “We did ‘Raging Bull,’ that came out ten days before ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ so that was 1980, the studio went down [United Artists went bankrupt], and that kind of filmmaking went out. This film, I think, was one of the last vestiges of that type of picture being made. It just sort of snuck in under the radar because everything had changed.”
The “Taxi Driver” director and star were asked if they approached making this film differently as a comedy. “I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or what,” De Niro said. “It wasn’t a comedy, was it?” Scorsese asked. The audience laughed.
The two told some inside stories about making the film. De Niro was familiar with the world of the denizens who feed off celebrity, and he took Scorsese to meet people who hound their idols for photographs and autographs. Belzer also took them around to comedy clubs to get a glimpse of that world.
“It’s so hard to direct comedy,” Scorsese mused, and then described how Lewis directed one hilarious scene in the film because it actually happened to him. Langford (Lewis) walks by an older female fan, who is thrilled, stops him and asks him to talk to a friend on the phone. When he refuses because he’s in a hurry, she screams at him, “I hope you get cancer.”
As for how prophetic the film is, Scorsese said he knew he was commenting on the culture of that time but not “that it would blow up into what it is now.” He was inspired by “The Tonight Show” and learned a lot from watching talk show hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, along with films by Lewis and work by Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac. “That world was very, very close to me.”
As for Pupkin’s distinct look, including the bushy moustache, greasy hair and flashy but immaculate suits, “We went to this store on Broadway near the Stage Deli that advertised themselves as “shirtmaker to the stars,” De Niro said. They peaked in the window at a mannequin. “Let’s just do that,” De Niro said. “The moustache, the red tie, the shoes, everything. That’s him!” Scorsese said.
As for the casting Sandra Bernhard, who is so wonderfully deranged in the film, Scorsese saw her in a comedy routine with Belzer. “I used elements of that in the scenes with Jerry, when Jerry was tied up, or rather, taped up.” This is part of an outrageously funny scene where Bernhard’s character tries to seduce Langford.
About 14 minutes into the conversation between De Niro and Scorsese, Jerry Lewis was brought out and the audience went wild.
Lewis was hot. “You two do good together,” Lewis cracked about the actor/director duo.
Lewis spoke briefly about how comedy has to come from real experiences, giving him an opening to tell a joke: “Knowing I was coming, I said to my staff, this is going to be my chance to finally ride on the subway. I haven’t been on the subway since I was seven years old. I get on the subway train, and I’m sitting there nice and we come to a stop. The doors open and a young guy comes in and sits down. He’s wearing a leather jacket, with gold chains coming out of his nose. And he’s got leather shirt, leather pants. He’s got a leather tongue, and he is wearing all of this stuff and besides that his hair is spiked. It’s yellow, blue, green and white. So I’m staring at him. He says, ‘What’s the matter, old man, didn’t you ever do anything unusual in your life?’ I said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, 20 years ago I had sex with a parrot. I thought you were my son.”
Ba ba ba boom! The audience laughed, especially Scorsese and De Niro.
“I had some asthma attacks on the picture from laughing,” Scorsese said.
Bernhard, who wasn’t there, sent a hilarious video. “Marty! Bobby! We took over New York City in the summer of 1981,” she said from the giant screen. “The day you discovered me was the day my life changed and everything fell apart. Look at where I am now? Nowhere. Thanks a lot.” She went on to call the film, “the gift that keeps giving,” and wished she could be there, “but I am.”
Lewis recalled filming that kidnap scene with Bernhard, and how his character is filled with “angst” and “anger” at this “injustice that’s been perpetrated on him.” He told Scorsese, “I think when he gets out of the tape, he should punch her [Bernhard] right in the mouth.’ He said, ‘You want to do that?’ I said, ‘More than you’ll ever know.”
Scorsese was asked how he met Lewis and cast him, but it was Lewis who had to remind him. “You don’t remember calling me?” Lewis asked. “You said you and Bobby were talking last night and thought it would be great if I did ‘The King of Comedy.’
Lewis, who was playing Lake Tahoe at the time, told Scorsese, “I’ll go anywhere in the world for you, Marty, because I’d love to work with Bobby and you. And that’s how it happened. Maybe seven, eight months later we started principal photography. That’s how I met Marty. I had never met Marty. I met him on the phone. And he was thrilled.”
Scorsese praised how tirelessly Lewis worked, sometimes remaining on set all night
Lewis interrupted to ask, “Did Bobby do a film after this one?”
We also learned that one brilliant scene in the film is improv: De Niro and Abbott make a home invasion. “The entire scene at my home when he comes in, and I come back to my house with the golf clubs. All of that was ad-libbed, the whole seven or nine minutes,” Lewis said. “I remember I used the line on Bobby, something about Hitler. He said, ‘That’s not fair. The man made a mistake.’”
As funny as that scene is, it reminds us that many years later there are wacky people who try to invade celebrity homes.
Even the moment when Lewis’s character tries to get inside but the door was stuck was unplanned, Scorsese said. “It just happened the door was stuck. Everything was so uncomfortable to make that scene.”
“And we heard you sitting behind the camera hysterical,” Lewis cracked. “I said, ‘Are you going to continue laughing or are you going to cut this goddamn scene?!’”
Asked what it was like to see the film again after 30 years, De Niro conceded, “It was great to watch. I can watch a movie 25, 30 years after I do it. I can get a little objectivity. Not much, but some.”
“Tonight he’s going to see ‘The Deer Hunter’,” Lewis cracked.