"A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price."
I once heard that Stephen King gave an autograph to a fellow some years ago who called himself King's 'number-one fan.' Not long afterward, this 'number-one fan' made history by killing John Lennon.
Whether Mark David Chapman may have met King or not, the circumstances surrounding Lennon's death may have inspired King's great novel Misery as well as the equally memorable 1990 film version of it.
What Lennon's murder showed, though, is that fame has its dangers as well as its perks, & that is precisely what Martin Scorsese illustrates with this gem, which was his and Robert DeNiro's followup to their classic Raging Bull (1980).
Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro) is an aspiring comedian who simply wants to be in the spotlight. He attempts to do this by contacting one of his idols, Johnny Carson-esque talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) after getting a woman named Masha (Sandra Bernhard) out of Langford's car as he attempts to go home following his latest show. Rupert asks that Jerry check out his routine and Jerry, after informing him that everyone in show business starts at the bottom, says he'll be in touch and even encourages Rupert to call his office.
Believing his big break is finally here, Rupert begins to fantasize about being friends with Jerry, along with other celebrities. His ambition is unabated even after Jerry and his staff rebuff his efforts to get on his show. Rupert even brings his friend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) to Jerry's home uninvited, claiming that he and Jerry are close friends.
Rupert shifts tactics, though, after Jerry point blank tells him to leave and wants nothing more to do with him. Rita also leaves Rupert when she realizes that he and Jerry barely know each other. Shortly afterward, he and Masha (whom he recruited in the beginning of the film to get into Jerry's car so he could ingratiate himself to him by throwing her out) abduct Jerry and, after taking him to Masha's apartment, force him to call the studio to get him some airtime on the upcoming show that Tony Randall is guest-hosting. The studio and authorities agree, and Rupert is making his TV debut(even claiming that Jerry is tied up somewhere, which the audience responds to by laughing) while Jerry manages to free himself and escape.
Rupert's appearance brings raves, and he agrees to surrender himself to the police after he plays his performance on the TV in Rita's bar.
Scorsese and DeNiro were already a legendary team by 1983 and this film is another example of that. Rupert is somewhat similar to Travis Bickle, DeNiro's character in Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver (1976), in that he has a somewhat unusual view of the world and resorts to drastic measures to achieve what he wants. The difference is that Travis is more of a lost soul when the audience meets him, while Rupert wants fame because, as he puts it during his appearance, "it's better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime."
Lewis is also good, specifically when he conveys the frustrations which go along with being famous. Perhaps his best moment is when, after his abduction, he calmly and rationally tells Rupert that he didn't check out the tape of his act because the pressures of his bosses and the public left him no time to do anything else. He even apologizes to Rupert for this lack of time and even tells him that he'll check his work out as well as not press charges against him (Rupert listens to Jerry's words, but his desire for fame is still strong).
The ending is somewhat open to interpretation in that Rupert serves only two years of his six-year prison sentence but, when released, he has penned a memoir (entitled King for a Night) and his performing skills are in demand. Has Rupert really achieved this level of success or is this simply another of his fantasies?
More than any other film on this list, The King of Comedy failed to make an impression when it was released because of its title, which, naturally, led people to believe that it was a comedy. The chuckles Rupert generates on Jerry's show notwithstanding, this is a serious look at fame and its pratfalls.
A nice touch has several celebrities, including Randall and Dr. Joyce Brothers, appearing as themselves. Scorsese's cameo as (what else?) a director is also good fun, and, I think, as great as the cameo he gave himself in Taxi Driver.
The late Gene Siskel once compared this film to The Cable Guy (1996), in which Jim Carrey plays the title character, who stalks his unsuspecting customer, played by Matthew Broderick. Unlike Rupert, though, Carrey's cable guy just wants a friend, even though he uses numerous alias from TV characters. Siskel also speculated that this film didn't get much notice because it wasn't a standard Carrey comedy that people, by this time, were expecting.
In any case, The King of Comedy, like Marnie and The Terminal, is a gem from a master filmmaker which just got lost in the shuffle of the other great stuff he was putting out at that time.