After the show at a New York comedy club, I order another orange juice, scan a few dozen tables in a room where the lights just came on, and notice two old men in the furthest corner. One’s about ninety and the other in his seventies. My eyes must be haywire. Is that really them? They look like Jerry Langford and Rupert Pupkin who in 1982 starred in The King of Comedy, a movie that upon release made more people uncomfortable than it entertained but has become, to sophisticated viewers, a celebrated study of obsession, mental illness, and comedy. I have to talk to those guys. I stand and walk tentatively to their table.
“Hi, good evening,” I say. “I want you to know I think The King of Comedy is one of the greatest films ever made.”
The older man, Jerry, looks at me like I’m on a Most Wanted poster and says, “We’re busy. Goodbye.”
As I turn, Rupert says, “Hold on. You really think so?”
“I do. Every scene’s just right, every line of dialogue perfect.”
“Sit down and join us,” says Rupert.
I take a seat and shake his hand. Jerry keeps his right hand on a nonalcoholic drink.
“I watch The King of Comedy several times a year,” I say. “I’ve been trying to break in as a stand-up for a long time.”
“You must be the Rupert Pupkin of this generation,” Jerry says.
“Would you guys like to hear some of my material?”
“Definitely not,” says Jerry.
“You could email me a file,” says Rupert, handing me his card.
“Thanks so much. I really didn’t come over here to talk about myself, though.”
“What’re you here for,” Jerry says.
“To talk about The King of Comedy.”
“Is that Rupert or me?”
“Both. I loved how Rupert spent years waiting outside the studio where you hosted your talk show, which I still feel was better than Johnny Carson’s, and sort of forced his way into the backseat of your limousine.”
“If I’d had a gun, I’d have shot him. Don’t try anything like that.”
I nod and say, “I won’t. I don’t have Rupert’s conviction. But that’s really how he broke in.”
Jerry looks at Rupert and says, “I was dumb enough to give him my business card, and he barged into my goddamn office and security had to throw him out.”
“Thankfully, all that’s on film,” I say.
“The director and I thought we were filming a documentary of my life.”
“I had to recreate the personal scenes of my life once I became famous,” says Rupert.
“Once you got out of prison,” says Jerry.
I watch both men, feeling like I’m at the movies. “Rupert, I still can’t believe you and your lady friend, another aspiring comic, had the guts to kidnap Jerry.”
“You must be a moron to think kidnapping’s brave,” Jerry says.
“I mean, despite the risks, Rupert believed so deeply in his comedic ability that he forced you, or at least those who worked for you, to put him on air.”
Jerry takes his right hand off the glass and aims a wobbly index finger at my forehead. “He only got on air because he threatened to kill me if my people didn’t put him on at the start of the show. That’s sick, and Rupert soon realized it.”
Shaking his head, Rupert says, “I don’t think I figured it out right away, Jerry. I wanted to be like you. I had to be a star for myself and for that beautiful black bartender who I wasn’t good enough for until I became somebody. I couldn’t stand assistants and other flunkies always rejecting me without the great ones, like Jerry Langford, seeing what I could do.
“Once we had Jerry tied up, gagged, and stashed away in New York, I felt far more energy and confidence than ever. I knew I’d written the best monologue of my life. I couldn’t have done that unless I’d been creating it for The Jerry Langford Show, and for the wonderful lady I planned to marry.”
“You’re not that crazy anymore, Rupert,” says Jerry.
“Since my monologue on that show attracted more than eighty million people, and I got a lot of publicity in prison, and my success has continued, I think I can cling to some sanity.”
I look empathetically at Rupert Pupkin and ask, “What happened to the pretty bartender?”
“She filed a restraining order against me, and her boyfriend threatened to take me out. I’m happy to report she’s had two divorces and gained fifty pounds. Look at the broads I have today.”
“Does it ever bother you that some women like you because you’re rich and famous?”
“Doesn’t bother me at all. Does it ever both you, Jerry?”
“Only thing that bugs me is I can’t get it up anymore.”
“Thank you both so much for talking to me,” I say, standing.
“Don’t forget,” says Jerry Langford, “you ever pull a Rupert and force your way into my limo, I’ll shoot your ass.”
Laughing, I ask, “What about you?”
“I gotta say yes, cuz most guys who’d do that are violent,” says Rupert Pupkin.