Robert De Niro plays the simplistic, driven, and uncool Rupert Pupkin. Jerry Lewis plays a quiet, tired Johnny Carson-like cardboard cut-out of himself Jerry Langford.
From the moment we see Rupert, he's shoving himself through a large crowd of autograph seeking fans outside a TV studio, separating himself from the group to show that hes after something different. But all this breaks down the moment Jerry Langford exits the studio. The crowd turns crazed and climbs over each other to get close to Jerry. Rupert sees the possibility of a break and goes for it. Rupert pushes back the mob and tries to help Jerry get inside his waiting limousine. But waiting inside for him is the obsessed stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who's hidden in Jerry's car. Rupert slams the door on her face.
We're stopped with a flash-bulb freeze frame. From inside the world of Jerry's car, two hands press hard against the window looking out toward the crazed fans in a mob outside trying to fight their way in. Between the hands peering intensely inside is the illuminated face of our most confident and committed protagonist. Immediately we're faced with opposite sides of a looking glass.
Masha is pulled out and Jerry is pushed in. Rupert takes advantage of his situation and jumps into the car with Jerry, again separating himself from the manic autograph hounds just outside the door. As he enters the car, he leaves behind the identity of just being a fan. He and Jerry now have a connection. He now has been given the green light, the blessing of being in the right place at the right time to get what he wants. By coming in contact with his dream nothing stands in his way of reaching out and taking it.
Their conversation in the car lets us know Rupert is a comedian who deeply admires Jerry. Jerry is tired and politely hears him out. The rest of the film soars high into Rupert's imagination based on this simple exchange.
Rupert is deceivingly simplistic. His will to succeed is never sidetracked or affected by outside realities. Rupert only wants one thing: to be a TV talk show host. Nothing will stand in his way. Without a moments hesitation we find him in ruthlessly embarrassing situations, worthless confrontations, simply for his insistence on turning aspiration into execution. As we follow him and Masha to the bitter end, we see there's no stopping Rupert in getting what he wants. He'll eventually succeed, but to a questionable cost. All he wants is Jerry to recognize his talent and put him on the show. He wants to be friends with Jerry. He wants to be better than Jerry. He wants to bury Jerry.
He never stops to consider fantasy from reality.
The two realities that exist in this film are Rupert's committed fantasy and our outside, unattached, onlooker perception. We see Rupert resting his finger on the receiver of the pay phone waiting for the ultimate call from Jerry. The basement scene with him on set sitting between cardboard cut-outs of Liza Minnelli and Jerry facing Rupert as he mocks up conversation between them.
All the conversations Rupert and Jerry have: the office calls where Jerry begs Rupert to host the show, the restaurant meetings where Jerry opens up to Rupert, even to the point where Rupert is being asked for autographs instead of Jerry, or the other patrons in the restaurant are peering across the room at them and can't believe the celebrity sighting they've encountered.)
Being on TV with Jerry and the high school principal who marries him to his bartender crush then admits, on the air, that Rupert was right all these years and those who doubted him were wrong.
The two most effective examples of these parallel realities are the pull back shot of the laughing audience wallpaper to which hes performing to. Digging further into the dream is the looping laugh track that plays behind his center staged creation.
Then finally, the pictures last two minutes, having been released from jail on good behavior the world is waiting on Rupert to return to their lives. He's on every magazine and TV channel, similar to Scorsese's earlier film Taxi Driver where the protagonist Travis Bickle becomes a hero for saving the young prostitute's life. Rupert Pupkin becomes a household name. We see bookstores carrying his autobiography, his manager is making him lots of money, he's introduced onto his new show again, again, and again. Let's hear it for Rupert Pupkin! Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen! Rupert Pupkin! He walks out into the spotlight and smiles into the excited warm welcoming audience. This will be the last we see of Ruperts self-promoting imagination before the final jump to black.
Rupert Pupkin is in all of us. Hes the thing you think to say after the time has passed to say it.
The question The King of Comedy leaves us with is: what does one do with a dream?