13 Facts About Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro star in The King of Comedy (1982).
Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro star in The King of Comedy (1982).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

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.

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy (1982)
Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

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.

Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy (1982)
Jerry Lewis stars in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

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.

Additional Source:
Conversations with Scorsese by Richard Schickel (Knopf, 2011)

13 Facts About Amadeus On Its 35th Anniversary

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though much has been written about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the most entertaining look at the master composer's life might very well be Amadeus, Milos Forman's film about the artist's life (and rivalries), which was released on September 19, 1984.

Here's a look back at the Oscar-winning biopic that not only brought renewed interest to Mozart's music in the 1980s, but inspired Austrian rocker Falco to write the chart-topping "Rock Me Amadeus." Poor Salieri never stood a chance.

1. Amadeus began life as a Tony Award-winning play.

Russian poet/playwright Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play in 1830 called Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer—who was already a Tony winner for Equus—took inspiration from that to write his own play. Amadeus played in various theaters in London beginning in 1979, then premiered on Broadway in 1980 with Ian McKellen as Antonio Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart, and Jane Seymour as Constanze, Mozart's wife. The production won five Tonys, including Best Play and Best Actor for McKellen, who beat out Curry for the award; the two leads had been nominated in the same category.

2. Mark Hamill wanted the lead role, but Milos Forman wouldn't let him audition.

In an attempt to circumvent any typecasting he might get after three blockbuster Star Wars films launched his career, Mark Hamill played the composer on Broadway for nine months in 1983. But when the time came for the movie to be made, Czech director Miloš Forman couldn’t get the space cowboy image out of his head. “Miloš Forman told me, ‘Oh no, you must not play the Mozart because the people not believing the Luke Spacewalker as Mozart,’” Hamill said in a 1986 interview. “He was very upfront about it, and I appreciated that rather than getting my hopes up that it was possible I’d be playing the role.”

3. Kenneth Branagh legitimately thought he had landed the lead role.

A young Kenneth Branagh was an early contender for the part of Mozart. In his autobiography, he wrote that he thought he had the part in the bag until Forman informed him they were casting Americans for the leads. Other actors who auditioned for the Mozart role included Tim Curry and Mel Gibson. Though Mozart was a rock star in his day, actual rock star Mick Jagger was also turned down after his audition.

4. Mozart's frequent collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder was played by another stage Mozart.

Actor Simon Callow originated the role of Mozart at the Royal National Theater production of Amadeus in 1979, and though Forman told him his portrayal was "truly brilliant, fantastic, asshole and genius, funny, tragic, crazy, a baby and a god," the director wasn't prepared to give him the title role in the film. Instead, he cast Callow as Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist who worked with Mozart on The Magic Flute and played the part of Papageno the bird catcher.

5. The movie was shot without the use of light bulbs or other modern lighting devices.

The Tyl Theatre in Prague was the original theater where Don Giovanni first premiered in October 1787, and the authenticity of the building was a huge boon for the production since it had hardly been updated since it was first built in 1783. “[The Tyl is] where the opera premiered. And he conducted the first performance. And none of the opera house had been touched since he was there," choreographer Twyla Tharp recalled in 2015. "We had fire everywhere. We could have burnt down the opera house. We had live fire in the chandelier. We were lighting people on stage, and these guys were whipping these torches around."

Patrizia von Brandenstein—who became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Art Direction with this movie—had nightmares about damaging the all-wooden opera house. "I thought, 'God will truly punish me if this place catches on fire,'" she said.

6. Tom Hulce practiced piano for four to five hours a day.

In order to look believable on camera, Hulce spent a month with a piano teacher before filming. Although he knew some basics—he could read music, and had played violin and sung in choirs as a child—he needed to look like a natural. "I spent four weeks, four to five hours a day learning to play,” Hulce told People in 1984. “The first two days were scales and exercises. The next day was a concerto." And for that scene at the masquerade ball when Mozart plays a tune while lying on his back? That was really Hulce.

7. Tom Hulce's laugh is semi-historical, though he had trouble recreating it.

Throughout the movie, Mozart has an infectious cackle—it comes out just as often when he’s giddy as when he’s uncomfortable. Though there are dubious historical reports that the real Mozart had such an obnoxious laugh, Hulce created the giggle after Forman asked him to come up with "something extreme." "I've never been able to make that sound except in front of a camera," Hulce later said. "When we did the looping nine months later, I couldn't find the laugh. I had to raid the producer's private bar and have a shot of whiskey to jar myself into it."

8. Someone really did commission a requiem from Mozart—it just wasn't Salieri.

The script clearly took some artistic liberties, including the plot line of the masked man who comes to Mozart pretending to be his dead father. This was not, as the movie portrays, Salieri. But in 1791, Austrian Count Franz von Walsegg—who had a penchant for commissioning music to pass off as his own at his twice-weekly concerts—approached Mozart and asked for a requiem for his beloved wife, who had died on Valentine’s Day.

According to a famously censored document in which a teacher near Vienna, Anton Herzog, recorded firsthand accounts of von Walsegg’s court, the Count often rewrote these commissioned quartets and other scores in his own hand and didn’t give credit to the original composers. His staff musicians often laughed this off because it seemed to amuse the Count, and because the Count was also an amateur musician in his own right. Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D minor,” the document alleges, was one such piece. And Mozart really did die later that year, in December, before completing the full mass. Salieri didn’t help him complete it though; Austrian composer and possible Mozart student Franz Süssmayr took that on.

9. The actors felt intense jealousy, too.

Salieri and Mozart were the 18th-century equivalent of frenemies: They were contemporaries in a competitive field, and though they needed each other’s support, they weren’t above petty jealousies and a little backstabbing. Hulce and F. Murray Abraham (who played Salieri) also felt those pressures. ''Tom and Meg [Tilly, the actress originally cast as Constanze] were very close,'' Abraham told The New York Times in 1984. ''They had these secret jokes and were always laughing together. I was pushed out, and I was resentful. I began to have very nasty feelings that were exactly like Salieri's feelings toward Mozart. When that correspondence between a film and real life occurs, it's a director's dream.''

“Occasionally Murray and I would go out and drink this terrible sweet champagne that they have in Prague," added Hulce. "But at other times there was a rivalry between us, and I found myself suspicious of him.''

10. It was shot almost entirely on location in Prague—while under surveillance from the Secret Police.

During filming in 1983, Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. The production team was often followed around by the secret police, and Forman and the cast spoke about their fears that a Fourth of July prank—the unfurling of the American flag in the concert hall and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the large cast and crew—would lead to their arrests for inciting rebellion. Many suspected that their hotel rooms had been bugged during the six months they spent filming the movie.

Forman, who was considered a traitor for becoming an American citizen and not returning to the Soviet-controlled area, had previously had one of his movies banned in the country (then called the Czech Socialist Republic). According to Twyla Tharp, in order to shoot in red territory, Forman had to make certain concessions. "Miloš had to sign an agreement that he would go to his hotel every night for the year that he was there and that his driver would be his best friend from the old days," Tharp told The Hollywood Reporter. "And everybody knew what would happen to his best friend if something untoward politically happened around Miloš, because Miloš was a sort of local hero and he was dangerous to the authorities."

11. A teenage Cynthia Nixon had a small but pivotal role.

At age 17, Nixon played Lorl, the maid employed by Salieri to spy on Mozart. Though she was an experienced child actor at that point, she was also trying to finish her schooling. Thus, she and her parents were cautious of the time she'd need to be abroad for filming. "When I was cast in Amadeus with Miloš Forman, which was shooting in Europe," Nixon said in 2014, "I said, 'I want to be in your film so much, but I have a request: If I don’t shoot for two days in a row, you have to send me home.' They agreed."

12. The distributor made a promotional video depicting Mozart as a modern rock star.

Since the movie wasn't financed by a major studio with lots of promotional dollars behind it, the distributor, Orion Pictures, decided to get creative. And what better way to promote a rock star in the age of MTV than with a music video featuring David Lee Roth and cuts of Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, KISS, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Madonna dancing along to Mozart's "Symphony No. 25 in G minor"?

13. The movie was a huge hit.

The film nearly tripled its $18 million budget at the box office, which was particularly impressive considering it opened in a limited 25 theaters and didn’t have a wide release until several months later. The movie also swept the Academy Awards—of its 11 nominations, it won eight, including Best Picture and Best Director. And, just as on Broadway, Salieri won the Best Actor statuette over Mozart, with Abraham beating out Hulce.

Pod Search, a Search Engine for Podcasts, Can Help You Find Your Next Binge-Listen

Milkos/iStock via Getty Images
Milkos/iStock via Getty Images

Having too many options definitely seems like the best problem to have when it comes to picking your next top podcast obsession, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming. To streamline the hunt, try Pod Search—a website and mobile app that has all the information you need in order to choose a winner.

As Lifehacker reports, the user-friendly site is organized in several different ways, depending on how you’d like to operate your search. You can browse its list of about 30 categories, which range from “Storytelling” to “Crime & Law,” and each has a set of subcategories so you can get even more specific. If you trust the opinions of the general public, you can choose an already-popular podcast from the “Top Podcasts” tab. Or, if you like to be the first to recommend the next big thing to your friends, you can pick a program from the list of new podcasts.

Pod Search also has a handy tool called MyPodSearch which will pretty much do all the work of choosing the perfect podcast for you. All you have to do is check whichever categories interest you and add any additional keywords you’d like (which is optional), and MyPodSearch will deliver a list of podcasts personalized for your tastes. This is great for people who have wide-ranging interests, a proclivity for indecision, or both.

Each podcast has its own landing page with a description, audio samples, places you can listen, website and social media links for the podcast, and a list of other podcasts from the same producers. You can also create an account and bookmark podcasts for the future—so, hypothetically, you could have MyPodSearch create a personalized list for you, bookmark them all, and then have a binge-listening itinerary that’ll last you until next year.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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