By the late 1970s, Jerry Lewis was becoming perilously close to being a has-been. After decades of celebrity – first in his successful partnership with Dean Martin, then later on his own as the star of comedies like Rock-A-Bye Baby and as the auteur behind epochal hits such as The Nutty Professor – the gifted comic filmmaker and host of the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy telethon started experiencing a series of stumbles. He shelved his much-ballyhooed drama The Day the Clown Cried, about a German clown living in the Nazi concentration camps, deeming it a disaster he’d never allow the public to see. A Broadway show failed miserably. His longtime wife Patti filed for divorce. An ambitious plan for Jerry Lewis Cinemas, a national theater chain catering to family films, flopped. In 1981, he filed for bankruptcy.
And yet, when Lewis finally focused his energies on making another movie, the forgettable 1980 comedy Hardly Working, he had another smash on his hands. “The public never left me,” Lewis declared to Rolling Stone in 1982. “They were there all along.” But it wasn’t until his next project that he demonstrated the depth of his artistry. That film wasn’t written or directed by him – and it certainly was no commercial success. But as fans mourn Lewis’s death at the age of 91, The King of Comedy will be remembered as one of his greatest achievements – a dark look at showbiz dreams guided by a performer who understood the creepy underside of celebrity all too well.
The script, written by Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman, had attracted the attention of Robert De Niro in the mid-Seventies, telling the story of a desperate, untalented stand-up obsessed with a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host. The actor passed it along to his buddy Martin Scorsese, hoping he’d love it, too. “I didn’t get it,” Scorsese later recalled in the book Conversations With Scorsese, adding, “The script is hilarious. But the movie was just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show.”
That, in fact, is a pretty accurate description of plot, but it doesn’t come close to articulating the waves of neediness, despair and paranoia coursing through that prickly black comedy. The praise for the film’s success should be shared by many people, including Scorsese, De Niro and costar Sandra Bernhard, cast as a wacked-out celebrity worshipper. But a crucial component of The King of Comedy’s sting comes from Lewis’s performance – and that fact that it’s Jerry Lewis in the role.
Not that the comic was Scorsese’s first choice to play the beloved host of The Jerry Langford Show, who accidentally crosses paths with Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), a going-nowhere comic who seems deranged. Everyone from Orson Welles to Dean Martin was considered for the part; eventually the decision was made to go with Lewis. “It was terrific,” Lewis once said about reading the script overnight while doing a stint in Tahoe. A month later, he was meeting with Scorsese and De Niro to begin preparing for the shoot. “For the next eight weeks … [we] met every day,” Lewis recalled, “and their questions to me were related to why I have no anonymity and what’s it like being a celebrity. … I proceed to tell them things that we incorporated in the script.”
His anecdotes helped sharpen The King of Comedy – after all, he’d been involved in vaudeville from an early age, soon moving to radio and film. But his own psyche was fed directly into the movie’s black heart. Competitive and insecure, Lewis had spent much of his professional career trying to prove something to people. Whether feeling like he was living in the shadow of his more handsome partner Dean Martin or fighting for more creative control so that he could direct his own Hollywood star vehicles, the comic seemed perpetually unsatisfied, always after something better. As he once explained, the reason why he avoided going into therapy was that he feared it would cure him of the hang-ups that fueled his success. “If I find out what’s bothering me,” he said, “I won’t be funny any more.”
Those storm clouds hover over Langford’s head throughout the movie. Pupkin looks at the late-night host as the man on the mountain, the star who can rescue him from his mediocre life. (He even has fantasies of his hero begging him to take over the talk show for a while.) But we see little of the glamour of celebrity. The Langford we meet is perpetually cranky and distracted, funny, but not particularly hilarious – his punch lines are a little too tart. And, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, we watch what it’s like for Langford to walk around in New York. The bit was suggested by Lewis, based on experiences he himself had had interacting with random fans; Scorsese even let Lewis direct the scene himself. “Originally my name in the script was Robert Langford,” the star said in 2011. “I said, ‘Marty! We’re going to be shooting in New York. Do yourself a favor and call him Jerry Langford.’ He said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because everywhere we go in New York, your construction workers and cab drivers will validate that it’s Jerry.'”
While Lewis was lending his expertise and persona to the film, his collaborators were slowly torturing him. That’s how Scorsese put it years later, admitting that, because The King of Comedy’s subject matter wore on him, he’d often show up late to the set to avoid confronting the material’s darkness – thus making Lewis wait hours to film him, if at all. “I think he was uncomfortable and felt it was an unprofessional situation,” De Niro would later say of his costar. “He has directed movies himself. I think he felt it was too freewheeling and improvisational.”
Of course, the Taxi Driver star didn’t help matters. He refused to befriend Lewis during the filming; when the legend invited De Niro to dinner, he rejected the offer because their characters were adversaries. (“De Niro has obviously never heard Noel Coward’s advice to actors about remembering the lines and trying not to bump into the furniture,” Lewis once said of the Method actor’s intense process. “He just could not forget this part at the end of the day’s work.”)
Lewis’s discomfort escalated in his scenes with Bernhard, whose Masha keeps an eye on Langford after she and Pupkin kidnap him. A fiery comic whose go-for-broke performance in the film helped launch her career, Bernhard played Masha for maximum irritation, especially as she’s crooning to the tied-up Langford. At a 2013 anniversary screening, Lewis recalled that he was so mad at his co-star that he suggested to Scorsese, “I think when [Langford] gets out of the tape he should punch her right in the mouth.” Lewis later added that Bernhard was “the reason they invented birth control.”
The King of Comedy opened in the US in February 1983, promptly bombing, despite good reviews. The New York Times singled out Lewis, praising his “brilliant solemnity.” (The comic was nominated for a BAFTA award as well.) But as time went on – and sitcoms like The Larry Sanders Show expertly pulled back the curtain on the egos and insecurities of the late-night world – The King of Comedy and Lewis’s performance began growing in stature. In light of the comedy legend’s passing, the film proves even more to be a window into his inner workings as a performer – while at the same time shedding the lunatic antics that had made him a star.
“The role was difficult,” Scorsese told Rolling Stone around the film’s release. “He had to look as if nothing were going on – as if he were just walking along the street. He wasn’t used to acting that way, and he had to keep his face less than elastic. That’s very hard to do.” Maybe, but The King of Comedy changed the way audiences and filmmakers saw Lewis, who in subsequent years would start trying his hand at more dramatic work in films like Funny Bones and Max Rose. And he’d always happily talk about The King of Comedy, no matter how difficult it might have been at the time.
“I’m performing something I’ve never performed before in that intensity,” he said around the film’s release, adding, “To see myself – because I had no mask or no disguise that I’m used to seeing this silly Jerry hide behind – it was doubly frightening because I was watching myself play a real-life moment in my life … it’s frightening.” And, for the audience, astounding.
Tim Grierson is the author of Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.