The Aura of Prosperity
by Molly Lambert
dir. Martin Scorsese
The King Of Comedy came out twenty four years ago and it rings like a truth bell more than ever. Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated dark comedy is about fame and its pursuit. Not the lovingly sepia-toned version he rolled out in The Aviator that keeps chumps like me interested in the VF Hollywood Issue. (“Ooh! Hitchcock!“) The King Of Comedy is interested in focusing on the chumps. What happens to the lowly consumer of culture who tries to reciprocate.
The King Of Comedy was written by Paul D. Zimmerman, who once said “If you’re not cynical, you’re stupid.”
Fame is a one-way mirrored monologue masquerading as a conversation. Celebrity Worship Syndrome is a recognized psychological condition. Some people think it’s at an all time high in America, corresponding with insecurity about the impending recession. I buy that, but it’s not just America. The epidemic is worldwide. Celebrities represent our cultural Jungian archetypes.
Adult child beauty pageant queen Britney Spears is busy demonstrating the full spectrum of psychological conditions in the DSM IV on a world stage. Angelina Jolie is practically a fertility cult and Jennifer Aniston is the patron saint of jilted women. Whether you see yourself in Anna Nicole or Alan Rickman, no one is immune to identifying with celebrities.
They are our Olympians. They act out the same basic emotional dramas as mortals. Through invasive media we get to watch voyeuristically and make judgments from home. It’s the concept behind social networking sites, blogs, American Idol and the election. That bizarre desire to be judged, to be evaluated and approved by strangers, is somehow innately human.
Scorsese’s made a lot of films about celebrity. His Mafia films are about the localized version; neighborhood notoriety. It’s basically the same idea. You get recognized and receive special treatment. People help you out and want to give you things.
But there’s a malevolent flip side, which is that people want to tell you about themselves. They are helping you in the hope that you will give them something in return. You most likely can’t and they will be disappointed. Fame is both convenient and a curse.
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is neither funny nor talented, but he wants to be a famous comedian. He lives in his mother’s basement with a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minelli. He is sidesplittingly pathetic, which makes his drive to be recognized fucking hilarious.
Fabulous ginger dykon Sandra Bernhard, as Masha, gives DeNiro a run for his money in the ‘genuine psychopath’ school of performance. Masha’s masking tape seduction of Jerry Langford is as uncomfortable as you imagine being forcibly raped by your lesbian stalker might be. (Unless you are Alex, who is gunning for lesbians to start stalking him.)
Scorsese excels at depicting the interior lives of poignant losers. Pupkin and Masha may be his most blindly confident losers and by that token, the most poignant. The film’s “happy” ending is perhaps the darkest touch of all.
“I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?”
You know the saying Kill Your Idols? Sometimes just meeting your heroes can be enough to destroy the positive illusions you’ve built up around them. You’re generally better off not meeting them without a proper introduction.
Success begets other people trying to leech off that success. If people came up to you every day wanting something you can’t really give them; the aura of prosperity, I imagine it would get tiresome really fast.
Jerry Lewis; Money, Cash, Hoes
But fans feel like celebrities owe them the courtesy of an encounter. Especially in the case of a comedian or a talk show host with a ‘friendly’ public persona that is supposedly also your ‘real’ one. How do you be a dick to someone badgering you for an autograph when you’re, say, Conan O’Brien or Ellen DeGeneres?
Like the true cliche, a lot of comedians are deeply unhappy people. Sad clowns abound. It makes you suspicious of funny people. Humor is often a more socially acceptable form of more uncomfortable emotions like anger or sadness. Charismatic people are generally hiding some kind of insecurity or fatal character flaw behind their great personality.
no one knows what it’s like to be the sad clown
Jerry Lewis seems like a testy enough guy to start. To coax this great performance out of Lewis, Scorsese had DeNiro shout anti-Semitic shit at him in character before shooting a scene. Lewis never finished his own jaw-droppingly offensive magnum opus, 1972’s The Day The Clown Cried. The complete script is online.
TDTCC tells the story of a self-centered circus clown, Helmut Doork, who is sent to a concentration camp after a drunken impersonation of Hitler. There, he befriends the Jewish children of the camp, and performs for them, angering the camp Commandant. He is sent with the children on a train to Auschwitz, and there, he is expected to lead the children, like a Pied Piper, to the gas chambers.
The Larry Sanders Show really picks up where The King Of Comedy left off. I can’t recommend that show enough. Judd Apatow (who wrote and produced Larry Sanders) has his own Pupkinesque anecdote about Steve Martin that he is surely sick of telling by now:
Apatow regaled an audience at the New Yorker Festival this weekend with the tale of how, on vacation in California as a boy, he had spotted Martin washing his car in front of his home. The young Apatow jumped out of the car and asked for an autograph, but Martin said he didn’t give autographs at his home. “Please, we won’t tell anyone,” Apatow begged. Sorry, Martin said, but no.So Apatow went home and wrote Martin a nasty letter, in which he gave an early glimpse of his now well-documented talent for profanity. Three months later, he received a package from Martin that contained a copy of his book Cruel Shoes. “I’m sorry,” read Martin’s inscription. “I didn’t realize I was speaking to THE Judd Apatow.”
MOVIES ABOUT THE CORROSIVE NATURE OF FAME:
“Kundun! I liked it!”
MORE OF THAT SCORSESE THAT YOU ARE INTO
Molly Young on The Age of Innocence
Benjamin Mercer on Bringing Out the Dead
Jacob Sugarman on The Color of Money
Scorsese on L’Avventura
ENJOY THE MUSIC OF HEY WILLPOWER
“Not Trippin’ ” – Hey Willpower (mp3)
“Silent Ring” – Hey Willpower (mp3)
UNRELATED BUT ALSO SOMEHOW RELATED
Speaking of the horrific spectacle that is modern celebrity media: the Rolling Stone cover story on Britney is truly outrageous. Bonus points for being written by the girl who threatened to sue Alex for e-slander.
A wail emerges from the cubby — guttural, vile, the kind of base animalistic shriek only heard at a family member’s deathbed. “Fuck these bitches,” screams Britney, each word ringing out between sobs. “These idiots can’t do anything right!”
I’m a secular donaldist.
Big Name Fans are the hipsters of Comic-Cons.
Molly Lambert is the senior editor of This Recording.
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