‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro enjoy one of the great cinema muse relationships in movie history. Few American directors have found an actor who so thoroughly inhabits their screen worlds as De Niro does his old friend’s. The pair are best known for their collaborations on:
“Mean Streets” “
“New York, New York”
Powerful films all. But, as you’ll read, I’m making the case for Scorsese’s least known and seen film with De Niro, “The King of Comedy,” as a woefully under-appreciated work that ranks right up there with their best teamings.
Cases can be made for five of the other six pictures they did together to be considered in the Top 100 American movies of all-time: In an unusually strong decade for film, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” are certainly among the very best of that ’70s bumper crop of New Hollywood films. The first is an alternately gritty, trippy look at the small-time mob subculture that goes much deeper than crime movies of the past ever dared. The second is a cautionary tale fever dream that anticipates the cult of celebrity around violence. Though an acquired taste because of its uncompromising fatalistic uneasy rumination on love, “New York, New York” is a lush, inspired melding of intense psychological drama, magic realism and classic MGM musical. “Raging Bull” is often cited as THE film of the ’80s for its artful, brutal take on boxer Jake Lamotta and “Goodfellas” expanded on what Coppola did with the mob in the first two “Gpdfather” films by exploring in more detail the lives of men and women bound up in that life they call “our thing.”
Just as De Niro came to the fore as an actor who penetrates characters in unusually deep, perceptive ways, Scorsese does the same as a storyteller working on the periphery of human conduct. Extremes of emotions and situations are their metier. Their mutual penchant for digging down into edgy material make them perfect collaborators. “The King of Comedy” is a dark film whose intense, deadpan approach to disturbing incidents makes it read as a straight drama much of the time. But it’s really a satire bordering on farce and theater of the absurd about obsession with fame and media. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally stunted wannabe comic and talk show host who’s prepared to go to any lengths to make his show biz fantasies reality. His intrusive, hostile pursuit of affirmation and opportunity from fictional talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) grows ever more dangerous and aggressive and eventually turns criminal. The character of Pupkin is often compared to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and there are definite similarities. Both are isolated loners living in their own heads. Viewing himself as a kind of avenging angel, the loser Travis fixates on cleaning the streets of the human trash he sees around him and rescuing the child prostitute played by Jodi Foster. After growing up ridiculed and bullied, chasing autographs from celebrities, Rupert sees himself as entitled to what his fixation, Jerry Langford, has and he hatches a plot with a fellow nut case (played by Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry. Rupert’s ransom: doing a standup routine on Jerry’s show to be aired nationwide.
“King of Comedy” depicts the extremes, dangers and blurring of lines that make the object of celebrity media worship a target of an unstable mind. De Niro delivers a pitch perfect, tour de force performance as a vainglorious neurotic whose love for Jerry masks an ever bigger hate.
The film is filled with awkward, all-too-real situations that make us uncomfortable because we can identify with Pupkin’s desperate need to be liked, to be respected, to be taken seriously. The character is full of contradictions and De Niro strikes an incredible balance of grotesquerie, sweetness, delusion and determination..As Rupert, De Niro is pathetic, inspiring, scary, funny, needy and strong.
It had been awhile since I’d seen the film before catching it for free on YouTube the other night and I must say it holds up very well, and perhaps resonates even more with these times than with the time it was made and released (1983). After all, in an era when America’s elected a bombastic, egomaniacal reality TV star and grifter as president, is it such a stretch to think that someone could extort and kidnap their way onto late night television? “Triumph of the Will” (1935), “State of the Union” (1948), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) “Medium Cool” (1969), “Network” (1976) and “Wag the Dog” (1997)show, decade by decade, the unholy alliance we’ve made with mass media’s ability to manipulate, seduce, exploit and distort. Likewise, “The King of Comedy” (1983) shows just how far some among us are prepared to go for attention, power, fame.
Watch the movie at this link–
Now, more than three decades since the film’s release, De Niro currently stars as an old, belligerent standup in “The Comedian,” a film that Scorsese was originally going to direct but didn’t. I haven’t seen it and so I can only go by the reviews I’ve read, but it appears to be a real misfire. I will hold judgment until I see it for myself, and I want to because I’m eager to compare and contrast what De Niro did with the standup he portrays in “King” to the comic he plays in the new film.
After recently watching “The Graduate” and now “The King of Comedy,” I was reminded of what brilliant chameleons Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were early in their film careers. They very much followed what Marlon Brando did during his first decade and a half in Hollywood by submerging themselves in very different characters from film to film to film. Their collections ofcharacterizations may be the most diverse in American film history. These kinds of actors are rare. The closest equivalents to them we have in contemporary cinema may be Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp.
But I digress. Be sure to check out “The King of Comedy” and let me know what you think of its ballsy, over-the-top, sometimes surreal yet always thoroughly grounded take on the implications of seeking celebrity as its own reward and the thin line between harmless flights of fancy and deranged compulsion. In its view, the American Dream and the American Nightmare are two sides of the same obsession. Be careful what you ask for it seems to be saying. And don’t look now, but that schmuck and impossibly irritating, shallow moron may just be the next Big Thing in entertainmet, media or some other sphere of public inflience. There’s something Trumpian about the whole thing and its media is the message theme.
‘The Graduate’ revisited
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.
I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.
The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.
My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.
On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.
Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.
Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…
Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne
No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.
As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.
I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.
NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A. For details and tickets, visit–
Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–
Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne
Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader
©by Leo Adam Biga
There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.
Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.
Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).
With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.
Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.
Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.
”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”
For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.
”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”
Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.
“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”
He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.
Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”
Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.
”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”
As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”
Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.
”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”
Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.
”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”
Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.
”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”
Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.
Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”
The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”
He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”
Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”
Comedy is about as subjective as anything I know. What I find funny you may find boring or stupid or offensive. And what you find funny may fall flat to my eyes and ears or simply turn me off. Call it a matter of taste or a certain sensibility, but in my experience comedy preferences, like food preferences, are highly individual. And not always consistent either. What does or doesn’t make me laugh one day might change the next week or the next month. Mood plays a factor. Attitude as well. But clearly there are humorists, comedians, and standup comics who resonate with the masses, which suggests some comedy has, if not universal, thenbroad appeal and cuts through personal, social, cultural filters to tickle the collective bone. I must admit that I interviewed standup Felipe Esparza for the following story from a year or so ago without ever having seen or heard him perform. I still haven’t. My prep work before speaking to him consisted of reading some press materials. He was likable enough. Funny, too. But eliciting some laughs or smiles in a phone conversation is not the same as it is on stage. I’ll only know if his brand of humor works for me if I see him perform. Maybe some day.
‘Last Comic Standing‘ King Felipe Esparza Headlines Omaha Show
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
The Last Comic Standing live tour coming to the Omaha Music Hall on Nov. 20 features the finalists from the seventh season of the NBC comedy competition show, including winner Felipe Esparza.
Now he’s a headliner just like the comedy kings he idolized — Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Paul Rodriguez. He has a network development deal, comedy albums and two movies to his credit. He counts Rodriguez, his co-star in The Deported and I’m Not Like that No More, as a close friend and mentor. Sharing top billing with someone he admires is a little surreal.
“It’s the best feeling in the world. I’m on Cloud Nine, if there is such a thing. I love it,” Esparza said by phone from a tour stop in Milwaukee. “Paul Rodriguez is a really good guy. He’s cool. He took me on the road with him and I opened for him. He paid me well and took care of me. We became good friends actually.”
Esparza says when some suggested his act was too ethnic Rodriguez advised him to stay true to himself. By doing as Rodriguez urged, Esparza eventually broke through with mainstream audiences.
“Before Last Comic Standing that’s all I was considered (an ethnic comic),” says Esparza. “That’s why I never went on the road, I never got booked, I wasn’t famous enough or my comedy was too ethnic. A lot of Latino comedians I started out with kept telling me, ‘You gotta cross over to white people.’ Then I met Paul Rodriguez, who told me, ‘Thats’ all bull shit, if you’re funny they will cross over to you,’ and that’s what’s happened. Now I’m not just famous with Latinos, I’m famous with everybody.”
Esparza, who writes all his own material, says it’s as simple as “if you write jokes that are funny you don’t have to change nothing.”
But he says if it wasn’t for Last Comic he wouldn’t even be on the same bill “with three white guys and a black guy,” as he is on tour, because he would be the brown man out.
The comic has come far from a youth drug addiction that derailed him for a time. Once he got clean and sober, he went after his dream.
“I had just come out of drug rehab and my head was clear, I had goals and ambitions again. I didn’t know what to do, but the first thing that popped in my head was, I want to be a comedian.”
Breaking into the business meant screwing up his courage to go on stage and taking his lumps to learn the craft.
“My first time on stage I was nervous, I didn’t know what to say out there, so I just made shit up. I got laughs and I got to come back the next week. But I didn’t know what bombing was until I really bombed — oh, my god, horrible feeling, it’s like getting your heartbroken every minute.”
Esparza says he was never really confident he would win Last Comic.
“I had no gut feeling, but the longer I stayed on the show the more fans I was gaining because the show was taped in Glendale, Calif., and I’m from Los Angeles. The people that went to the first taping liked me, so they kept coming back. By the time of the last episode half to three quarters of the crowd was voting for me. They were going, ‘Felipe, Felipe, Felipe.’”
He says while “winning is great,” the exposure gained from the show meant that “win or lose I would have still won.“
- Veteran Latino comic promoter premieres new streaming comedy show site (latinalista.com)
- Image Entertainm ent presents the Latin King of Comedy PAUL RODRIGUEZ: JUST FOR THE RECORD coming to DVD September 25th (therogersrevue.wordpress.com)
- Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Delaney: Standup finds following on Twitter (variety.com)
- Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Controversy: Fellow Comics Rally Around Embattled TV Host (celebuzz.com)
- Gaffigan’s stand-up routine a joyous addiction for comic (lfpress.com)