The King of ‘The King of Comedy’

It is the year 2000. I have moved into my grandparents’ basement in Roswell, New Mexico, and am pecking out a skin-peelingly bad novel. I am 23 years old and I am lonely. I work nights down at the local Blockbuster Video, which enables me to catch up on a lot of movies I have yet to see. One afternoon, I watch the 1983 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. My immediate reaction: “I have never related more to a film’s protagonist.”

It is the year 2010. I have moved into my mother’s guest room in San Diego, California, and I am pecking out a slim existence working jobs below my level of education, but my writing no longer peels skin. I am 33 years old and somewhat depressed, but my therapy has been going swimmingly. I spend many a night watching VHS cassettes that my friends have dumped on me, the last man in Southern California with a hooked-up VCR. One evening, I watch the 1983 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. My immediate reaction: “I have never been more embarrassed to relate to a film’s protagonist.”

This is the story of how I went from king for a night to schmuck for a lifetime.

“I hate you, but I envy you.”

The crux of The King of Comedy is the idolization of famous talk-show host Jerry Langford (starring Jerry Lewis as himself, basically) by horrible, horrible comedian Rupert Pupkin (as played by De Niro when he was still an actor). Apparently, Scorsese himself is not a big fan of this movie because he seems to feel this was a clumsy, ham-handed point to make: the cult of celebrity is a dangerous one. But as we all know, since VH1 is piped directly into our brains as per court-order, this point has never been more relevant than it is today.

Basically, many, many Americans feel that they are special, individual snowflakes which should be — nay, must be — under the intense spotlight of fame for all the world to see. It matters not how marginally talented or attractive one is; after all, they’ll put anybody on TV, so why not me?

I don’t know what most people’s excuses for this delusional perspective are, but I am reasonably certain that in Rupert Pupkin’s case, as in my own, it is a mere lack of attention. We know Rupert lives with his mother, whom we never see, but whose ceaseless nagging off-camera throws Rupert into fits. We can guess that Rupert’s dad is not around, and likely never was. And so, like many baby boomers, Rupert became obsessed with television and its warm, glowing light of self-worth. Rupert was of the first generation to be raised on television, and so naturally, he sought its approval before that of anyone else.

Though I was a mere slip of a boy when this film was originally released, I think by that age — 6 or 7 — I had heard the Muppets tell me they loved me more than I had my parents. They mostly meant well, but my old man was a ball of rage pretty much from day one, and my mom was quite the opposite. The only real balance I could find was in the non-stop depictions of normalcy that were beamed into my face via the cathode tube. It’s an old song, and one I was actually pretty aware of by the time I first saw The King of Comedy. After all, I was a smart-ass punk rocker, I knew who Newt Minow was, I’d read “Harrison Bergeron,” man, I knew the score.

But yeah, not so much. I am relieved that I was smart enough even then to see how all idols are pretty much made of Play-Doh. But as Rupert engaged in extremely vivid and detailed fantasies of his idol Jerry Langford begging for his help, praising his work, basically prostrating himself at Rupert’s feet, so too did I give in-depth interviews to Writer’s Digest, Rolling Stone, Playboy. Me and Stephen King hanging out at his Maine summer home and counting our mosquito bites. Me being praised on the Howard Stern Show as the guy who got Howard excited about literature. I’d lay awake for hours with this stuff in that basement because I simply could not deal with the fact that I was a nobody who as yet had done nothing.

By the time I watched King of Comedy again, I’d read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. And in that book, he states that the two ways to get big in showbiz are to have a lot of connections and know all the right people, or to simply be so good that they can’t ignore you. This resounded with me, and not just because I idolize Steve Martin. But because it’s a theory that makes only you accountable for your work: no one else can take that away.

By the age of 33, I figured out that if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. And now here I am, making my bones and laying my own career path as a writer. So suck it, Martin (unless you read this, in which case, I’m only kidding).

“You’re gonna love me.”

Here’s where things get a little trickier. As Buddy Cole once said, we’re all just here to find love. All of us can and mostly do deal with the notion that the world is a big, scary place where few people, even those lofty celebrities, really care if we live or die. But the seeming inability to find just one other person who will remind us to take out the garbage for the rest of our lives, that’s a lot more difficult.

Rupert Pupkin has been in love with Rita Keane since high school, though they haven’t seen each other in almost twenty years. He shows up at the bar where she works, all ready to wow her with his business dealings with the Jerry Langford. His chance encounter with Jerry has given him the confidence to finally approach her and ask for a date (the fact that he knows right where she works seems to indicate that he’d been keeping tabs on her for some time). He tells her how much he’s always liked her since they were kids, and he even notes how odd it is that we’re so afraid to express these feelings when we’re younger. Though Rupert dresses like a ‘70s store mannequin from Duluth, there’s obviously something about his demeanor, his attitude, that strikes a chord with her and she agrees to have dinner with him.

But then of course, Rupert completely miffs it. Whatever inroads he was making to Rita’s heart, he had convinced himself that he was not a worthy suitor to her if he wasn’t some kind of big-shot. On their first date, he whips out his autograph book, attempting to wow her with all of his close, personal friends in the entertainment industry. And you can see the confusion rise in her face: why is this guy trying so hard to impress her? She might be a lovely woman, but she’s just a person. Not that she isn’t deserving of the good things in life, but what exactly are those good things?

And then Rupert digs his grave even further by dragging Rita out to Jerry’s vacation home under the pretense that they were invited. Rita now seems convinced that this Rupert fella is as big a deal as he’s made himself out to be and reluctantly gives herself over to this big, new world, which immediately comes crashing down about their ears. The storybook wedding Rupert fantasized about, with Jerry as his best man and Dr. Joyce Brothers as Rita’s maid of honor, that’s all out of the question. But it’s because Rupert is not in love with Rita as much as he is in love with idea of being in love with Rita.

I think I actually did know all of this at the age of 23, though I would not have dared say it aloud. A hopeless (in a quite literal sense) romantic, I knew — simply knew — that love would happen for me as it clearly did for all other happy couples: during a live television broadcast. The troubles with self-worth discussed above become only more compounded when it comes to romantic love. And as I sat there in my little basement room and watched The King of Comedy, I remember a big part of my brain hollering at me, “This is fucking insane!  This never happens in real life, this is a castle in the sky, man!” But, dude, I had such a crush on the barback at the sports bar up the street that I could not let go of the notion that I too would sweep this pretty lady off her feet, forever and ever, blah blah.

Fortunately, a decade later, I had my head on a bit more straight about this sort of thing. Any asshole can fall in love (and this is one asshole who has a bunch), but it really is not the be-all end-all. I, like Buddy, am still here to find love. But I realize that it’s not simply a matter of overwhelming an attractive person to where she feels there is no choice but to be naked in front of me. Nor is it something I need the world to see and approve — “Lookit me, everybody, I’m normal, too!” Love is beautiful and warm and soft and kind of a pain-in-the-ass sometimes but ultimately a lot of fun.

But it will not consume all of my attention, all of my effort. I have got work to do.

“I can’t even take over my life for six weeks!”

And this is where Rupert and I part ways, with a vengeance.

When Rupert first muscles his way into Jerry’s limo in the first fifteen minutes of the film, we can immediately see he is not funny. He starts praising Jerry on his technique, on how Jerry’s punchlines feel so natural, how Jerry never says, “Hey, folks, here’s the punchline!” And Jerry says, “You never say, ‘Hey, folks, here’s the punchline!’” Nobody in the history of comedy, that I’m aware of, has ever said, “Hey, folks, here’s the punchline!”

Jerry, though, is pretty much trapped with this guy, so he tells him that comedy is really just like any other business, and there are certain ground rules that simply cannot be done without. You’ve got to start at the bottom, and you have got to put in the work. Even when Jerry got his big break filling in for Jack Paar, it wasn’t as though he’d just wandered in off the street. He worked to get to that position.

At 23, my life was over. College drop-out, professional cash-register jockey, perpetual bachelor. I’d done nothing with all of my many, many years on planet Earth and it certainly didn’t look like I was going to anytime soon. Normal people were beginning their careers, their own families. I was scribbling half-assed Jim Thompson stories in a basement in the middle of the desert. I was dead and just forgot to lie down.

At the end of The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin pulls it all off. He kidnaps Jerry Langford, hijacks the show long enough to get his lousy monologue on the air, and though he goes to jail for his crimes, he still ends up a household name, a celebrity at last. There is a school of thought that the final scenes of Rupert’s star rising are all in his head like so many of his other fantasies, but there is nothing in the text of the film to prove or disprove this. As I watched that final scene for the first time, Rupert standing in the spotlight, drinking in the applause and adoration of millions, I saw the smile on his face and I was happy for him. He’d done it. He’d pulled it off.

I didn’t have the wit or wherewithal to kidnap some literary hotshot, so I settled back into dashing off short stories and sending them to any publishable market I could find. I did that for a few years before I realized that, in the heap of rejection letters piling up on my desk, there was one constant: me. I sucked. Not so much that I should just throw in the towel, but it occurred to me that, rather than continue this cycle of wasted postage, maybe I should concentrate my efforts on the craft of writing, maybe learn what I’m doing before I ask strangers to pay me to do it. I’d been told that before, but this time the switch went off inside my own head, a voice I could (mostly) trust which said, “Get to work.”

And so I did. I spent the rest of the decade worrying not about who was going to want to read this as much as I worried about whether or not I would want to read this. I went back to school and actually learned a thing or two about a thing or two. I went out into the world a bit and did some stuff, found some grist for the mill. I lived my life, and not just in some pre-pubescent fantasy world.

And wouldn’t you know it, it actually began to work. I began to crack the short-fiction market for the crime genre, weaseling my way into such respectable venues as Plots with Guns and Thuglit. I began to meet other like-minded writers, the sorts of guys and gals I never had run into before. It was an honest-to-God support system, and it helped feed this cycle of productivity. I was no longer spinning my wheels; I was working. And man, it felt (and still does feel) very good, indeed.

At 33, my life was beginning. I had my problems, sure, and I still do. But I was doing stuff, I was living my life, I was working. And I sat in my room and watched the finale of The King of Comedy, and I saw Rupert standing in the spotlight, the crowd going wild, and I noticed something I had unsurprisingly not seen before. As the camera moves in on Rupert’s face, he is beaming with pride at all he’s achieved, but just before the cut to the end credits, a cloud passes over his features. His smile drops, and there’s this unmistakable look in his eyes that says, “What have I done?”

They say that cheaters never prosper, and for once, they may be right. When I watch The Soup (which is about as close as I get to anything reality-TV based), the clowns and fools who parade across my screen, they’re not even human to me. And sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — as they pedal a unicycle down Lombard Street or salsa-dance with Marjoe Gortner or do whatever passes for entertainment, that same look will blur their visages, and you can tell. They have done nothing, they will do nothing, and they are nothing.

“Better to be king tonight than schmuck for a lifetime,” says Rupert Pupkin. But anybody can be a king if one is willing to push and bend reality to his or her will and usurp a throne. But reality has this funny way of snapping back into place after it’s been manipulated, and one day, you wake up and the reality hits you: you’re a schmuck. Always have been, always will be.

The only possible way to avoid that is to work at it. I believe that now like I never have in my soft, privileged life. You can bust your ass your whole life and still go ignored, but if you get good enough, they simply can’t ignore you. It all comes down to the work, and even if I can relate to Rupert Pupkin and his frustrated dreams of glory and love, I got no sympathy for a guy who won’t put the hours in.

King of comedy, nothing. I’d rather be a schmuck if that’s what it comes down to.

Jimmy Callaway lives and works in San Diego, CA. He is the underboss of Criminal Complex and overboss of Attention, Children and Let’s Kill Everybody!.

The King of ‘The King of Comedy’