Martin Scorsese made The King of Comedy in 1983, three years after his masterpiece Raging Bull. Both movies star Robert De Niro, whose collaboration with Scorsese constitute one of cinema’s great pairings.

The roles could not be more different. If De Niro plays a boxer in the black-and-white Raging Bull, he is an aspiring comedian in The King of Comedy. Raging Bull and Taxi Driver rank among De Niro’s greatest performances, but The King of Comedy is no less challenging – or brilliant.

About the funniest thing about De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin is his name. Rupert is convinced that he is destined for glory. He desperately tries to get a slot on television star Jerry Langord’s show, but is rebuffed, first politely and then vehemently.

Rupert’s skin is as thick as his dossier of gags. He isn’t very different from Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who has been stalking Jerry (played by the comedy legend Jerry Lewis). A conversation between Rupert and Masha, both of whom are utterly convinced of their actions, is among the sharpest things about Paul D Zimmerman’s screenplay.

Scorsese’s darkly funny as well as unsettling film expertly skewers the delusional feelings that fans sometimes have for the celebrities they worship. Rupert and Masha believe that Jerry owes them his time and attention. There are moments when The King of Comedy feels like a lighter version of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which De Niro indelibly plays a cabbie consumed by his demons.

Rupert’s mounting obsession with Jerry soon takes a malevolent turn, leading to a conclusion that can be seen as either apposite or a continuation of Rupert’s fantasy. The film, which is available on MUBI, directly influenced Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019). Joaquin Phoenix’s loner Arthur Fleck wants to be a stand-up comedian too, and has a crucial encounter with De Niro’s Murray Franklin. In Joker, as in The King of Comedy, Arthur Fleck takes the joke too far.

The King of Comedy (1982).