Martin Scorsese’s Most Terrifying Character Isn’t the One You’d Think

The Big Picture

  • Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s collaboration has produced a cinematic legacy of stone-cold killers, vengeful convicts, and deranged cab drivers.
  • The King of Comedy is an underrated film in Scorsese’s career, with De Niro’s frightening performance as Rupert Pupkin illuminating the nature of fame and celebrity.
  • The film reflects on the increasing consumer society of the 1980s and the dangerous desire for spectacle, presenting a harsh critique and a desperate plea to change course.

The long, fruitful collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro has produced many great films. However, a deeper look into their work together reveals an interesting point about both men. Seemingly, whenever Marty needs someone to turn your skin inside out, he turns to De Niro. Vice versa, De Niro seemingly only goes for these roles when he works with Marty, save for a few exceptions (Tony Scott‘s The Fan, Kenneth Branagh‘s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The result is a cinematic legacy of stone-cold killers, vengeful convicts, and deranged cab drivers.

Image via 20th Century Fox

The King of Comedy

Rupert Pupkin is a passionate yet unsuccessful comic who craves nothing more than to be in the spotlight and to achieve this, he stalks and kidnaps his idol to take the spotlight for himself.

Release Date
December 18, 1982

Martin Scorsese

Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack, Ed Herlihy



Comedy, Documentary, Drama

His recent turn as King Hale in Killers of the Flower Moon exemplifies what makes the De Niro/Scorsese battery so potent, with De Niro displaying a level of sadism we haven’t seen from him in quite some time. One connection remains not only as perhaps their most underrated film together, but the scariest character in a Scorsese film period, De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in 1983’s The King of Comedy. Made during what was initially seen as a down period in Scorsese’s career, it has rebounded in recent years, being seen as an almost harbinger of doom. De Niro’s prescient performance as Pupkin illuminates the frightening nature of fame, celebrity, and the rotting core of this new age.

The King of Comedy is Scorsese at his strangest

On a surface level, The King of Comedy doesn’t really seem to be up to the level of menace we’ve seen from De Niro and Scorsese. If we compare Pupkin to say, Max Cady from Cape Fear or Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas, on paper, they’re no match. Pupkin is a shmuck comedian living in his mother’s basement. There is no physical presence to him at all. If you saw him in a dark alley, you’d be afraid for him, not of him. The film opens with De Niro in a crowd of autograph collectors, waiting for talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis in the best role of his career). After a frenzy, Pupkin leads Langford away from the crowd, and after a few hack jokes, Langford relents and gives Pupkin his information for him to pass along his material to try and get booked on the show. This is really the inciting act for the whole film. Pupkin believes this is his big break, but as we begin to learn more about him, that becomes a bit hazy. He isn’t just a hacky comedian, he has seemingly never actually performed for an audience before. When we see him assembling his tape (on a homemade Jerry Langford set complete with cardboard cut-outs), he’s piping in crowd noise like he is actually in front of an audience. His obsession is not with comedy, but rather with appearing on Langford’s show, and he feels entitled to that. He is entitled to his 15 minutes.

This entitlement is new for a Scorsese character. If we look at his two major works preceding this one, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, both leads are certainly troubled, but there is a sense of struggle there. Both Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta have things they are working towards, but are held back by their inner demons. The difference between Pupkin and the characters of those last two films can be explained in a few ways. For one, those last two films were written by Paul Schrader, who is known for having a very particular style of protagonist, “God’s Lonely Man” as Travis himself says in Taxi Driver. Broadly speaking, he deals with these themes of inner guilt/trauma, and how those feelings manifest towards society as a whole. You can trace this line from Taxi Driver to Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters to Auto Focus all the way to his most recent film, Master Gardener. When you change a voice as idiosyncratic as Schrader, elements of your filmmaking style are going to change. That is inevitable. However, we must also look towards the difference in conditions, namely of the U.S., NYC, and Hollywood itself. The grime and grit of 70s NY had begun to dim slightly, the US had gone from the shame of Nixon and Vietnam into the Reagan age, and the New Hollywood era was in its death throes, with The King of Comedy arguably being the last film of the period. Gone was the anger and shame of his early period, and we see a new Scorsese in this film.

With ‘The King of Comedy,’ Scorsese Builds on His Previous Films

Robert De Niro on a talk show in 'The King of Comedy.'
Image via 20th Century Fox

The King of Comedy reflects on the rapidly increasing consumer society of the 1980s, namely the beginning of a kind of parasocial relationship towards entertainment and entertainers. Throughout the film, we see Rupert having these elaborate fantasies, not of adoring crowds, but of Jerry Langford’s approval and need in a way. He is this larger-than-life figure, who Rupert knows is his friend and equal, even though they don’t know each other. The line between what he sees on television and the real Langford is non-existent. How this manifests is what makes the film, and Rupert himself, so frightening. It is not that Rupert struggles, it is that what he believes is entirely real, and nobody else’s feelings or thoughts matter. There is seemingly no shame in him. He is going to get what he deserves, and that is a life of fame and fortune.

There is a key scene where Rupert shows up at Langford’s house, with a date in tow, insisting that he and Jerry are friends, and that they were invited there. His butler lets him in, and when Langford returns, and the jig is up, Rupert just keeps going. He’s found out, but that doesn’t matter to him. He still acts like he knows him, that they’re friends, and the scene just drags on with this routine. Let’s compare this to the oft-referenced sequence in Taxi Driver where Travis brings Betsy to the porn theater. Obviously, both characters are doing something wrong, but with Travis, you almost feel a sense of pity. He can’t help himself, he doesn’t really want to be this way, but he doesn’t know another way to be. Rupert sees nothing wrong with what he’s doing, and that is what is so frightening about him. It’s frightening because it feels real in a way none of Scorsese’s characters have felt before or since.

‘The King of Comedy’s Ending Is Where Rupert Truly Becomes Terrifying

Robert DeNiro as Rupert bowing for an audience in 'The King of Comedy.'
Image via 20th Century Studios

The ending sequence of the film is Scorsese at his most scathing and surreal. Rupert kidnaps Jerry, and uses the hostage situation to force his way onto the show. He does his routine, and is promptly arrested for his kidnapping. However, Rupert’s reality has seemingly come true now. His kidnapping of Jerry and appearance on the show have skyrocketed him into fame, he’s got a book deal, a movie, his own show. He has achieved it all. He was right the entire time. Now, there is a lot of debate about whether the ending of the film is real or another of Rupert’s fantasies. I personally think the former is a much more likely, and frankly, more interesting ending. It reflects on the state of media at the time. What you see on TV or in movies was no longer enough. We had seen real war on television, so we needed something bigger. What is bigger than a man so hellbent on achieving his dreams that he kidnaps a talk show host to appear on the show? Instead of any help for Rupert, his behavior is justified because that is what people want to watch. The cycle perpetuates itself.

Many of the films of 1983 in particular deal with this kind of void that needed to be filled. The answer in reality, of course, was consumption, but of what? A film like The Big Chill, for example, deals with that void by creating people with the same void you have, but making that an OK and acceptable thing to have. You consume your own life as entertainment with that film. Another film, and one that I think aligns very well with The King of Comedy, is David Cronenberg‘s Videodrome. Both films present this insane desire for spectacle, with Rupert’s desire for fame and recognition, and the increasingly violent imagery on television being consumed more and more in Videodrome. The line between entertainment and reality is now gone, in both films. Things must keep getting bigger and bigger, and what we are left with is a dangerous path to walk. The future is approaching dangerously fast, and we cannot deal with it through entertainment. Both films are harsh critiques, but also desperate pleas to change course. This is the closest we see Marty get to making a horror film in a way. It exposes this undercurrent of the way things function that is genuinely frightening, both that someone like Rupert could really exist, and that he would most likely be rewarded for it.

The King of Comedy may not be the most fun you’ll have with a Scorsese film. It is a downright uncomfortable film, with some of his most unflattering characters he’s ever had. What you will get is Scorsese at his harshest, presenting the audience with a film that indicts them, and forces them to deal with the fact that we are all becoming Rupert Pupkin. That was horrifying then, and it has become even more horrifying and even more relevant now. This film and this character are the most frightening work he’s done because we have never seen anything more real from him. The veneer has been erased, and we are left with what has been festering beneath it. A terrifying film, and one of the best of both Scorsese and De Niro’s illustrious careers.

The King of Comedy is available to stream in the U.S. on Plex.

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