Aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin attempts to achieve success in show business by stalking his idol, a late night talk-show host who craves his own privacy.
A film that is far less about 'comedy' per se than it is about the celebrity stalker persona and its attendant power relations; about how those ingratiate themselves to those at the apex of the cultural pyramid of power and about those who feel they must be famous even if it is reflected through the fame of others. Yet the film is also an inditement of a society that encourages and nurtures these baser human instincts (and let alone condones the existence of celebrities to begin with), and it moreover has an implied critique of a culture that can create such loneliness and social atomisation in those excluded from positions of cultural influence. Although The Kings of Comedy has a wonderfully subtle use of fantasy projection (and/or self-delusion) sequences, it is ultimately let down by the female stalker character played by Sandra Bernhard... although that is almost cetainly not her fault.
This is a very difficult film to like or enjoy, let alone love. It is also somewhat difficult to admire, particularly as it has an undeniably nasty streak and often morally ugly at times. Indeed, this is pretty ugly filmmaking at times, situating the worst of the stalker persona in the ugliness of Masha (Sandra Bernhard).
Still, it is not without some interesting ambiguities, even if does not push conversations about the fame seeker (and its potential metaphorical interpretation as representing the ugly heart of America) very far. In particular, it's not that Rupert wants to see himself on television per se, but he does want to see other people see him on TV, which is not quite the same thing. Yet the film curiously deprives us of seeing his life goal being fulfilled, except through Jerry Lewis's quietly horrified—or is it guilty?—eyes in the shop window. In that sense, the film remains perplexing and shape-shifting… and thus engaging. To be sure, this is second-tier Scorcese; but that is just another way of saying it's 'merely' fantastic filmmaking. Really not sure why they bothered to make Joker (2019) after making this film.
Melissa Anderson wrote in the Village Voice with some further background on Sanda Bernhard's character:
Like most of the actress’s scenes in the film, [many] moments were largely improvised. They illuminate what would become the two key aspects of Bernhard’s own one-woman shows, performances that pivot on her lacerating dissections of popular culture: her florid verbal aggression and her brilliant tweaking of the boundaries between insider and outsider, narcissism and abjection. Shortly after The King of Comedy‘s release, Bernhard made the first of several appearances on David Letterman’s show, simultaneously terrifying and turning on the then-ascendant late-night mainstay.
In retrospect, it appears that Rupert Pupkin was invented to expose a fundamental obliviousness in Scorsese and De Niro, because what they end up doing, as a practical matter, is endorsing the sort of delusion that inspired John Hinckley Jr. to impose himself on Jodie Foster. Artists cannot be expected to anticipate or control every ramification of their work, but Scorsese and De Niro certainly knew how Hinckley's pathetic fantasies had been fed by their greatest collaboration, Taxi Driver. At the very least, that should have made them peculiarly sensitive about any material that remotely paralleled Hinckley.
And Gary goes on to dislike the tone of the movie:
Although Pupkin is meant to be dismissed […] as a harmless celebrity-seeking nut, the movie never comes close to formulating a comic tone that might finesse the intimidating aspects of his pursuit of Langford. While the filmmakers seem intent on playing it dumb, they must have undertaken this ill-advised variation on their previous gallery of outlaw personalities in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York and Raging Bull with some awareness of placing themselves in a precarious and possibly disgraceful position.
He also identifies a concrete example of the film's mean streak that I touched on above:
The Diahnne Abbott character suffers a mean little touch: embarrassed when she accompanies Pupkin to Langford's Long Island residence and discovers that they're uninvited, she steals a knickknack. It doesn't seem in character, but it conforms to a compulsive streak of nastiness in the writing and direction.