The Tribeca Film Festival closed last night with a digitally-restored screening of “The King Of Comedy.” Thirty years later, the film still reverberates as an acidic take on celebrity worship that has, oddly enough, become timeless, and the re-master is gorgeous. The film was greeted with rapturous applause, but the real fireworks started after a raucous Q+A featuring a chatty Martin Scorsese, a shy Robert De Niro, and a more-than-eager Jerry Lewis.
Scorsese and De Niro spoke first about the genesis of “The King Of Comedy,” a script by Paul Zimmerman that late-night devotee Scorsese could not figure out. “It was between ’75, to 1980 before I could actually get it,” the director said. “I discovered it as I went along.” Scorsese referred to how “The King Of Comedy” was very much looked upon as one of the last of a dying breed of picture. “We did ‘Raging Bull,’ and that came out ten days before they released ‘Heaven’s Gate,’” he said. “This film was one of the last vestiges of that type of picture. It snuck in under that radar, because that whole world had changed.”
Scorsese showed an active engagement with the material early on, noting how he was a massive fan of the world he saw through the prism of late night talk shows. “I was introduced to Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac, people I hadn’t been introduced to otherwise,” he said. “That world was very close to me. So all the characters you see, they’re all part of that. Ed Herlihy, guys that like, were all a part of that world.”
To prepare for the shoot, Scorsese and De Niro attempted to hone the character of deluded standup Rupert Pupkin by hitting stand-up joints and shadowing other comedians. De Niro claimed he worked with the likes of Richard Beltzer and Robin Williams to find the character, but the eureka moment came from the wardrobe. Regarding the iconic red suit Pupkin wears in the film, De Niro recounts, “We went to this store on Broadway, Blue Mountain.”
“Shirt-maker to the stars!” Scorsese added.
“And we saw it on a mannequin,” De Niro continued, “and said, let’s just do that.”
“The face, mustache and shirt were all there,” Scorsese confirms. “The red tie and everything. We said, that’s him, let’s do it.” Scorsese also claims to have spent time with the autograph hounds waiting for the late-night stars, a milieu that shows up in a pivotal early scene of “The King Of Comedy.” But Scorsese easily credits De Niro and screenwriter Zimmerman for fleshing Pupkin out. “The actual monologue was written by Paul Zimmerman,” Scorsese says of the climactic stand-up routine. “That whole monologue, [De Niro] did it in one take. On video. The level of the humor is kind of middle ground. It’s not terrible. It’s not great. It’s enough to get by.”
Scorsese, who says it wasn’t a “comedy” per se (“We didn’t intentionally make it funny!” he protests), nonetheless emphasized how hard the film’s production was. "We did a lot of takes, sometimes 25 to 35 takes, variations of the reading of one line,” he says, noting they shot a million feet of film. Much of that is still sitting around, he says, mentioning one scene between De Niro and Diahnne Abbott, playing attractive barmaid Rita, that had to be deleted.
“There’s a scene where he calls her, and she goes to the phone,” De Niro recalls, referring to the amount of excised scenes. “And she goes out and she meets Rupert, and goes to his loft,” Scorsese added, often finishing De Niro’s sentences. “ And it doesn’t go well. It’s an interesting sequence, but the whole thing had to be lifted out. It’s one of those things people are interested to see as an extra.”