The world of Frank Tashlin was one of energetic vulgarity; his characters moved in the abstracted, plastic surface of 50s America, a landscape very much affected by the emerging mass-media. The form of his films at times, mirrors that of the titular character in The Disorderly Orderly (his 1964 collaboration with Jerry Lewis), who could physically experience the symptoms and maladies of the patients within his care. Jerry Lewis, who made seven films with Tashlin, before and during his own directorial career, proved to be his ideal actor. It was in Tashlin’s films that Lewis developed his well-known comic persona of an adolescent man-child. Artists and Models (1955) marked the start of their collaboration. Lewis’ character Eugene Fullstack nurtures ambitions of being a children’s writer. However this is constantly thwarted by his destructive passion for the Bat-Lady (or Bat-Ladeee!), his favorite comic character. His obsession with comics totally takes over his life and even his dreams. While sleeping, he would scream out, to all and sundry, the bizarre adventures of “Vincent the Vulture”. These dreams are hijacked by his friend (aspiring artist Dean Martin) as material for a successful comic book, transcribing the characters on panels just as Fullstack dreams them up, a form not at all different from the “automatic writing” favored by the surrealists.

The film’s strongest scenes focus on the interactions, the give-and-take between Fullstack and the more normal, less adolescent characters of the film. As the film progresses, we find that the normal characters against whom Lewis is supposed to contrast with, take on some of his characteristics, absorbing him in the process. This could be seen as “acceptance” but in Tashlin’s films, that’s not necessarily different from exploitation. The plot of Artists and Models literally has different factions vying for the rights of Eugene Fullstack’s dreams. The finale, which is seemingly reconciliatory, ends with a song that carries the refrain: “Life is full of happy end-ings/when you pre-tend”.

Like his other explorations of mass-media institutions, The Girl Can’t Help It(the music industry), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter(Madison Avenue advertising), Artists and Models borrows the idiom and feel of the media it parodies, riffing off the style of MAD magazine to provide a defining portrait of 50s culture and Cold War hysteria. Consumerist mass-media of course was a favorite subject in 50s Hollywood, in such films as George Cukor’s It Should Happen to You, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s lugubrious A Face in the Crowd and even the MGM musical It’s Always Fair Weather. These films were self-critical examinations of the most persistent of Hollywood myths, the myth of instant success. These films also highlight the fact that these myths are persistently exploited by the industry to target its audience, or in contemporary parlance, consumers.  What makes these films undeniably poignant, especially in relation to our present is their self-awareness, their unstated fear of cultural decline, a fear that the values of these films and their performers and artists would be swept away. Where earlier, they contributed as part of a legitimate popular culture, this would become increasingly difficult in the years to come, especially when entertainment and “show-business” would change and alter in values.

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is a crucial film in this context. Wim Wenders cites it [1] as practically “a treasonable film”, a film that directly criticizes the institute of American entertainment without catering to the desire to entertain itself. Popular culture as seen in The King of Comedy has declined to a point where fan-worship has become brutal in intent and action. Starting from this low point, the film portrays an even further decline in values by the time it arrives at its ending. Where in the 50s authentic satire could legitimately function in a popular culture of shared accord, mass-media at the beginning of the 80s had furthered the divide. A popular example would be the ill-favour Scorsese and others found themselves at the tail-end of the “New Hollywood”. It was not possible for Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Zimmerman to even promise any notion of “authenticity” as a correction to the established culture, even with any of the qualifications and ironies proposed by Tashlin and Lewis in their films.

As such, Jerry Lewis’ performance as Jerry Langford takes on historical resonance, especially when set against DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin. As noted by David Ehrenstein [2] at the time of the film’s release, Pupkin is in fact the “distorted funhouse mirror image” of the Idiot characters in Artists and Models, The Nutty Professor and The Patsy. Rupert Pupkin, like Eugene Fullstack in Artists and Models, fully lives out his obsessions. The basement of his house is refurbished into a mini talk-show stage, complete with cardboard cutouts of celebrities. Unlike Lewis’ titular patsy, Pupkin is a finely tuned façade of false naiveté and shallow charm, the sociopath as entertainer. Neither idiot nor innocent, Pupkin proves to be a cunning operator; his modus-operandi being strategic embarrassment. His interaction with the Producer’s assistant in the studio waiting room is a model example of the unstated brutality in gentle needling. Scorsese repeatedly emphasizes the actress’ (Shelley Hack) entrance into the waiting room in an extended sequence which revolves around a mixed-tape Pupkin submits as part of his audition. Her job is to make short work of Pupkin, drive him away but gently, with smiles and kind words. This fails miserably. By the third scene, a close-up reveals a fearful sideways glance as she enters the waiting room, thoroughly intimidated by the prospect of dealing with Rupert Pupkin.        

 

Jerry Lewis’ characters also dealt with embarrassment and humiliation. His accepted targets were stuffy authority figures that the audience rooted to see taken down several pegs. A notable instance is in The Nutty Professor, his comedic exploration of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The key scenes take place in the Principal’s office, where Dr. Julius Kelp would be constantly harangued by the principal for his dangerous experiments, intimidating Kelp and exhorting his authority. His chemically created alter-ego, Buddy Love is an unpleasant character, intended by Lewis as the archetypal bully. He intimidates and charms the principal when he arrives, taking over the space and in one of the film’s best gags, proceeds to literally dress down the principal, with his consent moreover. In the waiting-room scenes of The King of Comedy, DeNiro as Pupkin uses his nerdishness and geeky charm to bully the production assistant, repeatedly insulting her as a studio underling. Rupert Pupkin is essentially Buddy Love with the surface of Julius Kelp. Of course the starkest contrast is between Rupert Pupkin and the Jerry Lewis we see in the film.

While based on the talk-show host Johnny Carson, his character name Jerry Langford is a paper-thin disguise. The name, Langford, moreover alludes to Lewis’ status as an important film-maker, further alluded to when Langford observes his battery of TV-monitors in his house, currently playing Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street [3]. Scorsese avoids showing Langford in his role as a comic performer. The opening scene shows only a brief excerpt of his performance on TV. The deleted scenes in the film’s DVD [4] contains the full monologue, running to over five minutes, revealing Lewis in fine form. We see Langford energized and peerless in his comic timing; far more vibrant and happy than we see him being in any scene of the film’s final cut. The only moment of solitude for Langford in the film is the short scene where he sits at his dinner table with only his dog for company. Even this is shattered by a phone call from “fan” Masha(Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin’s colleague in stalking Langford, who obtained his number and thereby shatters his privacy.

These scenes were perhaps autobiographical [5] for Jerry Lewis, a meditation on his own celebrity (which at one point rivaled that of Elvis Presley). The sequence where Langford walks to work from the hotel offers a small respite as Langford casually chats and waves to people as he passes by. An old lady stops him and asks him for an autograph which he graciously supplies, however he politely turns down her request to speak to her nephew. Her response, “You should only get cancer!”, her face suddenly transforms from eager surprise to pure hatred. This short episode is directly patterned on a real-life experience [6] of Jerry Lewis. Lewis’ performance is fearless in showing Langford maintaining his self-control while constantly being attacked by fans. Particularly in the film’s single best scene, where Pupkin along with his date, Rita (Diahnne Abbott) gatecrash Langford’s house.  As noted by A. S. Hamrah: “There is something epic in the confrontation between DeNiro and Lewis. The modern sculptures it takes place around lend it a Greek quality. Langford, dressed in shorts and sneakers, is stoic and regal. Rupert, with his little mustache and two-toned shoes, is a jester heralding a new regime of shamelessness.”[7

The final glimpse of this transition is the climactic broadcast of “The Jerry Langford Show”. After Rupert and Masha kidnap Langford, they make one single, ludicrous, demand as ransom: a spot on the show for Pupkin to unleash his comic talents to the world. Pupkin happily walks right into the studio, unsettling the TV assistant he had formerly tormented by revealing himself to be the kidnapper. He’s already memorized his monologue; the only material he carries is a written introduction to be read out by the guest-host Tony Randall, in a “celebrity cameo”. A brief scene shows Randall lamenting the poor writing to the TV director (Scorsese himself). However, consummate professional that he is, Randall nonetheless proceeds and delivers the piece, the only decent thing we see on TV in the entire film. His own presence, his jovial charm and his priceless mock hang-dog expression, make up for the deficiencies of Pupkin’s material. The generosity of the star of Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? contrasts terribly with Rupert’s monologue, an outpour of narcissism and selfishness. While not without potential as comic material, what Pupkin expresses in his performance is his own wounded pride, his own desire to be “King for a Night”.

The final punchline is when Langford, who manages to escape the kidnapper’s hideout, runs down empty streets, stopping at a shop with a TV display. The close-up of Langford’s reaction is the last we see of him in the film. His face is lined; his eyes convey defeat and resignation.  For Lewis, the 80s proved to be his final period as an active film-maker. The King of Comedy presents a cathartic meditation on Lewis’ relation to show-business, dramatizing the changes in the commercial system that would ultimately exile Lewis, one of the most popular stars of the 20th Century away from the mainstream in which he thrived. The King of Comedy was of course a famous box-office failure and would seriously divide critics at the time of the film’s release. The film’s agonized portrayal of celebrity worship, its elegy to true showbiz professionals like Lewis, was too difficult to be grasped since both were rendered taboo at the time of the film’s release. It would be years until the film would be vindicated, in the words of Sandra Bernhard, as “the last really great film about culture.”[8]

 

 

Sudarshan Ramani

 

 

1] Wim Wenders On Film : Essays and Conversations. Faber & Faber, First Edition (December 2001). “The King of Comedy”, Page 458:

: "It's one of the rare films that are genuinely critical of America. Its criticism is aimed at the most vulnerable point of the American psyche, the basis of American culture, which is an entertainment culture. It's practically a treasonable film."

2] The King of Comedy, David Ehrenstein. http://ehrensteinland.com/htmls/library/koc.html

:“When Lewis looks at De Niro what he sees isn't a simple reflection, but rather a distorted funhouse mirror image of himself.   Rupert Pupkin.   It's a name Lewis might have chosen for one of his own sublime idiot/innocents.   But there's nothing innocent about Rupert.   All the Lewis lunatics ever wanted was love and understanding — and therefore success.   In The King of Comedy, the object of desire is fame and fortune now — love's an optional extra.”

3] Scorsese on Scorsese. This is in fact, an autobiographical in-joke on the part of Martin Scorsese, who admits to arranging monitors playing different scenes from chosen films in his place of work.

4] The King of Comedy. Twentieth Century Fox, DVD(2004). Special Features: Deleted Scenes: Jerry Langford & Monologue(05:38). Actually both the deleted scenes on the DVD show Langford’s lighter side. The monologue and the brief scene cut from the sequence of Langford walking New York streets (‘Jerry Meets His Fans’ (00:37) They were presumably removed to emphasize the serious pressures Langford is under throughout the film.  

5] Who the Hell’s In It : Portraits and Conversations. Peter Bogdanovich. Faber & Faber. 2005 Paperback edition. Jerry Lewis Profile (Chapter 8), Page 196-197. In the interview Lewis states that he was asked to contribute to writing of the film, working with screenwriter Paul Zimmerma, Scorsese and DeNiro on those aspects dealing with “celebrity” as, at the time of film’s release, he was the only one in the film who was publicly recognizable and frequently accosted. He considers the film “a wonderful movie” but favors his own ending, Rupert Pupkin killing Langford, over the one in the film.

6] The King of Comedy. Twentieth Century Fox, DVD(2004). Special Features: A Shot at the Top – The Making of The King of Comedy. Martin Scorsese says this scene wasn’t in the original script and that Lewis directed the actress playing the old lady.

7] Defining Moments in Movies, edited by Chris Fujiwara. Cassell Illustrated (Oct 2007). 1980s section, entry on The King of Comedy by A. S. Hamrah who notes that Langford’s living room doesn’t have a television.

8] The King of Comedy. Twentieth Century Fox, DVD(2004). Special Features: A Shot at the Top – The Making of The King of Comedy.