In the mid-1970s, Robert De Niro brought a script about a fan obsessed with a talk show host to his friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese, who said he wasn’t interested. Years later, De Niro tried again, and Scorsese said yes to what would become an essential entry in one of the great collaborations in American cinema.
The King of Comedy is Scorsese and De Niro’s meditation of the often hostile lines that form between private and public life, and it remains one of the most eerily prescient films of the 1980s. Here are 13 facts about the making of The King of Comedy, from the way the film uses improvisation to the scene that Jerry Lewis directed himself.
1. The King of Comedy was inspired by an actual obsessive fan.
Though it didn’t make its way to the screen until 1983, The King of Comedy actually has its origins in the early 1970s, when Paul D. Zimmerman—then a writer for Newsweek—began thinking about the nature of fame and fandom after reading a story about a man who was obsessed with Johnny Carson.
Zimmerman was directly inspired by "an article in Esquire about a man who kept a diary in which he assessed each Johnny Carson show: ‘Johnny disappointed me tonight,’ he would write,” Zimmerman later recalled. “The talk shows were the biggest shows on television at the time. I started to think about connections between autograph-hunters and assassins. Both stalked the famous—one with a pen and one with a gun.”
With this new correlation in his mind, Zimmerman began working on a treatment for the film.
2. Martin Scorsese wasn’t the first director attached.
With the seed of a fan obsessed with a talk show host firmly planted in his hand, Zimmerman began working with a famous director on a screenplay for what would become The King of Comedy, but that director wasn’t Martin Scorsese. According to Zimmerman, he was initially developing the film with Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the two men each developed their own draft of the story. After a few years of work, Forman “dropped out” of the project, and Zimmerman pressed on, ultimately catching the eye of a major actor.
3. Martin Scorsese didn’t want to do it at first.
The King of Comedy arrived in Martin Scorsese’s hands through Robert De Niro, who’d come across the screenplay and brought it to Scorsese in 1974. Scorsese, who knew Zimmerman as a journalist, liked the screenplay, but found it hard to “get excited” about it. Years later, while Scorsese was finishing Raging Bull, De Niro brought him the screenplay again, and with a little bit of hindsight about the nature of fame under his belt, Scorsese grew more interested.
“I read it, but I didn’t quite get it,” Scorsese recalled during a retrospective at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. “As we got further into the work, I understood it. I discovered it as we went along.”
4. Johnny Carson was the first choice for Jerry Langford.
With Scorsese onboard as director and De Niro committed to playing the leading role of Rupert Pupkin, the duo turned their attention to finding the right actor for the talk show host at the center of the film, Jerry Langford. Of course, De Niro and Scorsese went to the obvious choice first, and asked Johnny Carson—whose obsessive fans were an inspiration for the film in the first place—to play the role. Carson turned the offer down.
5. Johnny Carson wasn’t the only potential Jerry Langford.
When Carson said no to playing Jerry Langford, Scorsese and De Niro looked at a number of other famous showmen who might be able to carry the role, but none of them worked out. Among the other potential Jerrys were Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Orson Welles, and Dick Cavett. As Scorsese began to look at various Las Vegas acts for possible inspiration, he was reminded of the comedic duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, which then led him to take an interest in Lewis’ performance during his annual MDA Labor Day Telethon. Scorsese offered the role to Lewis, who accepted.
6. Rupert Pupkin’s look came from a mannequin.
With pre-production underway, De Niro began to dive into the character of Rupert Pupkin with Scorsese. The actor took his director everywhere from comedy clubs to the homes of autograph hunters in a search for inspiration. But perhaps the most serendipitous piece of the Rupert Pupkin puzzle arrived when De Niro took Scorsese and costume designer Richard Bruno to Lew Magram, a clothing store billed as “Shirtmaker to the Stars.” There, they found a mannequin dressed almost exactly like Rupert ends up looking in the film.
“It was amazing,” Scorsese recalled. “The red tie, the shoes, everything. It even had the mustache. ‘That’s him. Let’s do it.’”
7. Jerry Lewis renamed his character.
Jerry Lewis brought plenty of his own style and working method to the film, and it all began with the name of the character. According to Lewis, the character’s name in the script was actually Robert, not Jerry, but he persuaded Scorsese to change it for the reactions he’d get while acting on the streets of New York City.
"I said, 'Marty! We're going to be shooting in New York, Marty. 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.' And that's what happened,” Lewis told GQ. “If you remember, in the movie, whenever I was in the street: 'Hey, Jerry.' 'Yo, Jer.' 'Hey there, you old schmuck.' It worked great for us. Whenever I went to New York, that's what happened. It still happens."
8. Martin Scorsese hated making The King of Comedy.
The King of Comedy brought a number of logistical difficulties with it. Scorsese had to move up the production start date to avoid a directors’ strike, and shooting on the streets of New York City often proved to be a headache. To make matters worse, Scorsese had pushed himself so hard to finish Raging Bull that by the time The King of Comedy rolled around he was coming off a bout of pneumonia. In retrospect, though, Scorsese found the biggest problem was that the deliberately cringe-worthy material was unpleasant even from behind the camera.
“By the time I got to shoot it, I found that I didn’t like dealing with the story; it was so unpleasant and disturbing, it crossed so many lines that normally divide private and public lives,” Scorsese later told film critic Richard Schickel. “And I wasn’t a pro. I don’t know if I am a pro today.”
Scorsese also later admitted that he found the film so “unsettling” that he avoided seeing it after it was finished.
9. Jerry Lewis directed one scene himself.
Lewis’s comedic timing and attention to detail were a key asset in front of the camera, but while shooting The King of Comedy, Scorsese also found them to be important behind the camera as well. At one point, Lewis told Scorsese a story about a woman who’d stopped him while he was walking down the street and she was at a pay phone. It wasn’t in the script, but Scorsese added it to the film, and asked Lewis to direct it.
“Jerry worked it out in terms of the timing, how she stopped him,” Scorsese said.
10. Improvisation played a key role in the film.
In order to add a sense of immediacy and explosive tension to the scenes, as well as more than a little awkwardness, Scorsese encouraged the cast to improvise, particularly Sandra Bernhard, who’d been chosen for the role of Masha in part because of her ability to perform spontaneously onstage. The scene in which Masha ties Jerry up and attempts to seduce him contains much of the film’s improvisation, as does the scene when Rupert shows up uninvited at Jerry’s house. According to Scorsese, the scene in which Jerry’s butler Jonno (Kim Chan) couldn’t open the door was an accident that was left in the film because Chan and Lewis were able to improvise around it.
11. There was some tension between Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard.
The scene in which Masha covers Jerry in tape up to his neck and attempts to seduce him while he’s trapped in a chair is one of the most famous sequences in the Scorsese canon, but it didn’t come without difficulty. Much of the scene was improvised, and that sense of spontaneity brought out the differences in Lewis and Bernhard’s performance styles. That led to a certain amount of tension as Lewis began to push back against Bernhard’s boldness.
“He’s like my father times 1000," Bernhard later recalled. "My dad’s from that same generation of Jewish men who like, you know, they like women but women have their place. He’s gonna come across a person like me, specifically a woman like me, and it’s gonna freak him out.”
That tension culminated, according to Bernhard, in the moment in which Jerry tricked Masha into untying him, only to knock her out. Lewis originally wanted Bernhard to take a fall onto a glass table covered with candles, and Bernhard was reluctant. Jerry pressed his argument, but Scorsese ultimately intervened and went with the simpler version of the attack seen in the film.
“The sexual threat to Jerry was very important, but he used to crack up laughing. Then it became difficult to deal with, and his comments and jokes became edgier, throwing Sandra off for a little while,” Scorsese recalled. “Finally he worked it all out and helped her with the scene.”
12. The movie features some Scorsese family cameos.
Longtime Scorsese fans know that the director was fond of putting his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese, into his films wherever possible, and the pair is perhaps best known for their roles in Goodfellas as Vinnie and Tommy’s mother, respectively. Both Scorsese parents also have roles in The King of Comedy. Charles Scorsese only makes a cameo as “First Man at Bar,” but Catherine Scorsese has a larger, if offscreen, role. She’s the voice of Rupert’s mother, and apparently she was so convincing that Scorsese recalled it as being the only time De Niro cracked up during the making of the film.
The King of Comedy also features a couple of other intriguing cameos. If you’re looking closely enough at one of the crowd scenes, you’ll see Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of The Clash.
13. The King of Comedy was initially a flop.
The King of Comedy was released in February of 1983, and by the end of its box office run had only earned a little more than $2.5 million. Though many critics loved it and time has been kind to it, even Rotten Tomatoes acknowledges now that the film was “largely misunderstood upon its release.” For Scorsese, the reaction to the film in its release year was driven home by a moment in front of the television on New Year’s Eve, 1983.
“I was dressing up to go to my friend Jay Cocks’s house, and I’m watching Entertainment Tonight. They were summing up the year, and I was putting on my shirt, and they said ‘Now for the Flop of the Year: The King of Comedy.’ And I was …’Oh ... OK'" he said with a laugh.
Conversations with Scorsese by Richard Schickel (Knopf, 2011)