In Jerry Lewis' original "The Nutty Professor," when his nerdy Julius Kelp transformed into oily, abrasive lounge lizard Buddy Love, many viewers thought Lewis was making fun of his old partner, Dean Martin, but he was actually skewering himself. Buddy was the monster he feared success had made him become.

Twenty years later, Lewis got to star in "The King of Comedy," a movie about a Julius Kelp who yearns to become a Buddy Love and then, horrifyingly, gets his wish. Here, it's not just fame, but the mere pursuit of it, that transforms Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) into a monster. In this movie, fame is like a communicable disease that Rupert wants to catch, and he does so by forcing himself on Jerry Langford (Lewis), a TV star who has become something of an aloof jerk precisely to protect himself from hangers-on like Rupert.

Lewis' understanding of the dark side of fame may seem commonplace today, in a culture awash with celebrity, one where Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would get 15 minutes of fame has gone from loopy to banal. But when "King of Comedy" was released 30 years ago this week (on Feb. 18, 1983), its dissection of fame was not seen as conventional wisdom. Indeed, it appeared a surprisingly bitter dispatch from a guy who seemed to have it all.

Three decades later, "King of Comedy" seems shockingly prescient about what our reality-TV culture would look like, and how little distinction it would make between renown and notoriety. It also holds up as the finest dramatic work of Lewis' career, one of Martin Scorsese's most underrated movies, and -- in a way that we can appreciate now but didn't then -- a darkly funny film, the forerunner of the so-called cringe comedy that has become a dominant style of film humor today.

Lewis may have proved a natural as the jaded talk show host, but the project didn't originate with him or Scorsese. Rather, it was the brainchild of movie critic Paul Zimmermann, who had read an Esquire magazine article about an obsessive Johnny Carson fan. "I started to think about connections between autograph-hunters and assassins," said Zimmermann, as quoted in Mary Pat Kelly's "Martin Scorsese: A Journey." "Both stalked the famous -- one with a pen and one with a gun." Zimmermann turned his insight into a screenplay for Milos Forman to direct. That plan fell through. Zimmermann then sent the screenplay to Scorsese, who may have seen in Rupert a kinship to Travis Bickle, the would-be assassin De Niro played in Scorsese's "Taxi Driver."

Scorsese offered the role of Langford to Carson himself, who wisely turned it down; Carson may have been an intensely private, fan-averse celebrity just like Langford, but he wasn't about to risk his genial image by playing an unflattering version of himself in a movie. Lewis, however, turned out to be an ideal choice, one who had also lived Langford's life and had the scars to prove it -- and was willing to show them. One famous addition Lewis made to Zimmermann's script was the scene where Langford politely declines a fan's autograph request, whereupon the woman screams that he should die of cancer -- an anecdote taken from Lewis' own life. Lewis even claimed to have directed that scene himself.

Lewis' own inside knowledge was valuable in other ways. As he told Peter Bogdanovich for the latter director's book "Who The Hell's in It," Lewis had to explain to Scorsese and De Niro (both of whom could still walk the streets of Manhattan in relative anonymity back then) what that lofty level of fame felt like. An innovative director himself and a veteran of countless hours of TV, Lewis also said he directed the talk-show segments of "King of Comedy" for Scorsese, who Lewis said admitted to him that he had no idea how a TV studio set-up worked. And he also suggested an ending, rejected by Scorsese and De Niro, that would have had Rupert kill Jerry. So, no fear of grimness from the comic actor known for his silly, kid-friendly slapstick.

The sequences Lewis says he directed are of a piece with Scorsese's no-frills, almost documentary-like work throughout the film. By not resorting to the florid camera moves that mark his typical style, Scorsese brought the same sense of realism to Rupert's fantasies as he did to Rupert and Jerry's everyday life. No wonder a lot of viewers thought the movie's ending -- more ironic than the one Lewis proposed, with Rupert's scheme to achieve late-night fame by kidnapping Jerry actually succeeding -- must have been Rupert's fantasy. Today, it seems a perfectly apt ending; of course it would make Rupert famous, with his felony conviction and his lack of talent irrelevant footnotes.

In a further paradox, would-be comic Rupert's unfunny jokes actually helped the movie usher in a new style of comedy. The awkward silences that follow Rupert's punchlines compound the cringe factor of his wince-worthy humor. The result is one of the earliest examples of cringe comedy. A direct line can be drawn from Rupert's late-night act in "King of Comedy" to "The Larry Sanders Show" in the 1990s. The HBO series was another documentary-style backstage look at a famous and aloof talk-show host, one who has a Rupert-made-good as a sidekick, a sitcom build on cringe-inducing punchlines followed by awkward silences.

From there, you can draw a line to Ricky Gervais and "The Office" (Gervais' David Brent, and later, Steve Carell's Michael Scott, are both Ruperts who are utterly unaware of how painfully unfunny their jokes are), to other mockumentary sitcoms like "Modern Family," and to the TV shows and films of Judd Apatow (who wrote for "Larry Sanders" before becoming the dominant presence in movie comedy) and those of his posse, which now encompasses everyone from Carell to Seth Rogen to Will Ferrell to Ben Stiller to Lena Dunham.

Today, we're so accustomed to the rhythms of cringe comedy that we've forgotten how unprecedented it was when Scorsese and De Niro pioneered it in "King of Comedy." For our understanding of the horrors of a culture that seeks fame by any means necessary, and for the way we laugh bitterly at the unspoken gap between the way people present themselves on camera and the way they really are, we owe a debt of thanks to Rupert Pupkin.
categories Movies