Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Lewis all walk into a room together. There’s no real punch line to follow that, just Lewis’s brand of slapstick yucks, which had the sold-out crowd at the closing night of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival in hysterics.
The three legends were on-hand to screen a digitally restored version of “The King of Comedy.” The dark comedy classic — about wannabe stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who harasses celebrated talk-show host Jerry Langford (Lewis) for a shot at glory — was a box-office failure when it first hit theaters in 1983. Since then, it has developed a cult following and is now considered one of Scorsese and De Niro’s most underrated collaborations.
“I haven’t seen ‘The King of Comedy’ in twenty-five years,” De Niro said, before the film began. “I’m very curious to see it. If I am not too embarrassed, I will stay here after.” Of course, judging by the reaction from the crowd, there was nothing to be embarrassed about, as the movie’s twisted take on celebrity culture produced plenty of laughs.
Granted, the real entertainment began after the screening, when the two stars and Scorsese got up to talk about the movie and its legacy -– at least that’s what was supposed to happen; when Jerry Lewis is involved, all bets are off. Once the comedy legend joined Scorsese and De Niro on stage, he joked about everything from parrot sex to birth control to stalkers. Not that anyone minded, as the audience, rapt, looked on with wide-eyed amusement, watching the titan of comedy cracking jokes and having a good time while Scorsese and De Niro listened.
That said, there was at least some time for reflection on the movie, one that Scorsese seemed to have a lot of fun shooting. “I had so many asthma attacks on the picture from laughing,” he said, later admitting that Lewis developed a penchant for tossing rubber chickens during production. “In one scene…[Jerry] goes around the corner and I am holding the camera, and all of a sudden a rubber chicken hits the camera. The timing was perfect.”
Lewis confirmed Scorsese’s fits of laughter: “We heard you sitting behind the camera, hysterical. I said, ‘Are you going to continue laughing or are you going to cut this godd*mn scene?’”
“It brings back so many memories of that time,” De Niro added. “I think Jerry was terrific. That was reinforced with me watching it tonight. Finally, I can watch a movie twenty-five, thirty years after I do it; I can get a little objectivity.”
Sadly absent from the discussion was the film’s other star, Sanrda Bernhard. “The King of Comedy” was the actress’s breakout role, with her starring as Langford’s stalker, Masha. But just because Bernhard couldn’t make it out to the screening didn’t mean she was going to miss out on all the fun; she taped a pre-recorded message full of barbs.
“Marty! Bobby! It seems like it was just yesterday that we took over New York City in the summer of 1981. The day you discovered me was the day everything fell apart. Look at where I am now. Nowhere. Thanks a lot you sons of b*tches. Hey, remember when Jerry Lewis called me fish lips? That was a great moment on the set. The next day he brought me a handwritten apology letter. I coveted that letter. But by the end of the day it was missing. I figured he probably stole it back so no one could accuse him of ever apologizing to anybody.”
Despite Bernhard’s cracks, Lewis got the last laugh, joking afterward that his one-time co-star was “the reason for birth control.”
As for the film’s lasting legacy, “The King of Comedy” basically foreshadowed our current celebrity-obsessed culture. But that was by accident. As Scorsese revealed, the movie was only commenting on the culture at the time — he never saw it blowing up into what it is now. Bernhard alluded to that, too, adding, “Look at the world we’re living in. It’s a sh*tshow. Whatever we predicted in ‘The King of Comedy’ went so far beyond our wildest expectations that it seems almost homespun.”
Coincidentally, that culture was in full effect last night, as audience members repeatedly ignored the no-photo rule. After all, when you have Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Jerry Lewis (who, at one point, was wearing a clown nose) sitting next to each other, you want to do everything you can to capture the moment.