About Advertise
Culture, Movies

One on One | King of Comedy

by Roger Young / 28.10.2011

Before you had Zack Galifianakis, Ricky Gervais, before Tim and Eric, before Tom Green, there was one guy who did uncomfortable comedy better than all of them, Robert De Niro. He only did it once, though, in 1983’s little seen De Niro vanity project, The King Of Comedy. Directed by Scorcese and mostly framed in long shots because he was recovering from the seventies and was too weak to really get involved.

De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a guy who lives in his mother’s basement and dreams of being a stand up comedian as great as his hero Jerry Landers, played by Jerry Lewis, so much so that Pupkin has recreated the set of Landers’ talk show in this basement. Pupkin is desperate to appear on Landers’ show, the only problem is that his jokes are so cringingly awful that when he tries them out on the life size cardboard cut out of Landers you can almost feel the cardboard’s pain. Pupkin is in competition with Marsha (Sandra Bernhard in what is probably her second best role, after the lesbian in Will and Grace), they both stalk Landers, waiting outside his show, among the autograph hounds that they claim they’re not part of, and they indulge in behaviour, that if the movie wasn’t framed as a comedy by Scorcese, would be a carbon copy of Travis Bickle’s. A forced encounter with Landers in his Limo, convinces Pupkin that he has a chance at a guest spot on the show, this in turn gives him the confidence to approach the woman he had a crush on in high school, Rita (Diahanne Abbot, then De Niro’s girlfriend), now working as a bar lady. Rita doubts Pupkin’s chances but she is in a dead end herself and wants to believe. But Landers has heard Pupkin’s audition tapes and has written him off. This doesn’t deter Pupkin, who has discovered where Landers’ weekend house is, and in a desperate bid to prove to Rita that he is Landers best friend, takes her out there because, you know, Jerry invited them.


They arrive at the house; Rita all dressed up for Pupkin’s fantasy of a lunch with Landers’ famous friends. They’re met by the butler, an old Asian man who is completely perplexed by their arrival, bowled over by Pupkin’s insistence and in-depth knowledge of Landers’ movements, he allows them in and then rushes off to phone Landers. Rita and Rupert settle into the lounge to wait. Rita succumbs to the fantasy. She takes off her wrap, she pours herself a drink and she puts on a record, urging Rupert to dance with her. The more comfortable she gets, the edgier he gets. Rita decides to explore the house, Rupert tries to stop her but then chases her up the stairs, and then Landers arrives. Stone faced, he berates Pupkin, tells him to leave, calls him a cab. Pupkin refuses to accept what is happening but it dawns on Rita all too quickly. She begins to apologise. Landers just wants them out. Pupkin tries to save face by making excuses for Landers. It’s too much for Rita, “Can’t you see the man wants us to leave?” It’s the only time in the film Pupkin doubts himself. And then, in that moment, he knows, in order to win Rita he must get on Landers’ show but that Landers will never willingly let him on…

Fridays are One on One day at Mahala. One scene, one song, one image, product or design that’s made a real difference to you with its power, originality, brilliance or emotion. Tell us why it matters. Convince us it changed your life. Show us why we need to experience it for ourselves. Send yours in and we’ll publish the best. Up to 400 words. The best one each month gets R500 bucks. There are no rules. Write it how you want us to read it. Get involved.

5   1