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Tribeca: Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese & Jerry Lewis Reflect On ‘The King Of Comedy,’ Improv, Deleted Scenes & More

Tribeca: Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese & Jerry Lewis Reflect On 'The King Of Comedy,' Improv, Deleted Scenes & More

The Tribeca Film Festival closed last night with a
digitally-restored screening of “The King Of Comedy.” Thirty years later, the
film still reverberates as an acidic take on celebrity worship that has, oddly
enough, become timeless, and the re-master is gorgeous. The film was greeted with rapturous applause, but the
real fireworks started after a raucous Q+A featuring a chatty Martin Scorsese, a
shy Robert De Niro, and a more-than-eager Jerry Lewis.

Scorsese and De Niro spoke first about the
genesis of “The King Of Comedy,” a script by Paul Zimmerman that late-night
devotee Scorsese could not figure out. “It was between ’75, to 1980 before I
could actually get it,” the director said. “I discovered it as I went along.” Scorsese
referred to how “The King Of Comedy” was very much looked upon as one of the last of a
dying breed of picture. “We did ‘Raging Bull,’ and that came out ten days
before they released ‘Heaven’s Gate,’” he said. “This film was one of the last
vestiges of that type of picture. It snuck in under that radar, because that
whole world had changed.”

Scorsese showed an active engagement with the material early
on, noting how he was a massive fan of the world he saw through the prism of
late night talk shows. “I was introduced to Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac, people I
hadn’t been introduced to otherwise,” he said. “That world was very close to
me. So all the characters you see, they’re all part of that. Ed Herlihy, guys
that like, were all a part of that world.”

To prepare for the shoot, Scorsese and De Niro attempted to
hone the character of deluded standup Rupert Pupkin by hitting stand-up joints
and shadowing other comedians. De Niro claimed he worked with the likes of
Richard Beltzer and Robin Williams to find the character, but the eureka moment
came from the wardrobe. Regarding the iconic red suit Pupkin wears in the film,
De Niro recounts, “We went to this store on Broadway, Blue Mountain.”

“Shirt-maker to the stars!” Scorsese added.

“And we saw it on a mannequin,” De Niro continued, “and
said, let’s just do that.”

“The face, mustache and shirt were all there,” Scorsese
confirms. “The red tie and everything. We said, that’s him, let’s do it.”
Scorsese also claims to have spent time with the autograph hounds waiting for
the late-night stars, a milieu that shows up in a pivotal early scene of “The
King Of Comedy.” But Scorsese easily credits De Niro and screenwriter Zimmerman
for fleshing Pupkin out. “The actual monologue was written by Paul Zimmerman,”
Scorsese says of the climactic stand-up routine. “That whole monologue, [De
Niro] did it in one take. On video. The level of the humor is kind of middle
ground. It’s not terrible. It’s not great. It’s enough to get by.”

Scorsese, who says it wasn’t a “comedy” per se (“We didn’t
intentionally make it funny!” he protests), nonetheless emphasized how hard the
film’s production was. “We did a lot of takes, sometimes 25 to 35 takes,
variations of the reading of one line,” he says, noting they shot a million
feet of film. Much of that is still sitting around, he says, mentioning one
scene between De Niro and Diahnne Abbott, playing attractive barmaid Rita, that had to be deleted.

“There’s a scene where he calls her, and she goes to the
phone,” De Niro recalls, referring to the amount of excised scenes. “And she goes out and she meets Rupert, and goes to his loft,”
Scorsese added, often finishing De Niro’s sentences. “ And it doesn’t go well. It’s
an interesting sequence, but the whole thing had to be lifted out. It’s one of
those things people are interested to see as an extra.”

At the mid-point of the Q+A, Lewis joined the duo, sprightly
and eager to be there. After beginning with an off-color routine about bestiality
and the subway system, Lewis discussed how he got involved with the production.
Speaking to Scorsese, he said, “You called me, you said, you and Bobby were
talking last night, and we thought it would be great if you did ‘The King Of
Comedy.’ I was playing Lake Tahoe, and you called me, and I said, I’d go
anywhere the world for you Marty. Send me the script, but I don’t need it because
I’d love to work with Marty and you. That’s how I met Marty.” He added drolly, “And
he was thrilled.”

Scorsese, who says he still screens Lewis’ films,
mentioning “The Ladies’ Man” as the last one he’s re-watched, was in awe of
Lewis’ skill, remarking about how perfect he was to play talk show host Jerry
Langford. Regarding casting, Scorsese said, “If you go to the talk show hosts,
then you go to the actors, a list of actors, then you go to directors… Jerry’s
been all of them. Performer, director, actor, host. Inventor. What we use now,
a lot of people don’t know this, but the video assist was started by Jerry.
Prior to that, we didn’t know what we were getting, he did the video assist

Lewis started off his comments by establishing, “When the
comedy comes, if the comedy is real, it’s always gonna score better.” Later, he
emphasized this by revealing that a tense scene at Langford’s summer home when
Pupkin rudely intrudes, revealing that was a product of improv. “The entire
scene in my home when he comes in, and I come back to my home with the golf
club, all of that was ad-libbed, the whole seven-to-nine minute scene,” Lewis said. “The line with Bobby, I said something about Hitler, he said, That’s
not fair! The man made a mistake!”

Scorsese added, “Everything was so uncomfortable to make that

To which Lewis interjected, “We heard you sitting behind the
camera, hysterical. I said, are you gonna continue laughing, or are you gonna
cut this goddamn scene?”

Though she couldn’t be there for the screening, Sandra Bernhard
recorded a message to play to the audience. Edited quickly, the minute-long
message featured jokes mixed with rapid-fire remembrances that the audience
laughed over, though she did get to ask Lewis, “Hey, remember when you called
me Fish Lips?” Bernhard was famously discovered for “The King Of Comedy” during
a routine with fellow stand-up Beltzer, material that Scorsese says was
slightly repurposed for the scene where she has Langford taped down at

Lewis, responding to Bernhard’s story about stealing back
his own apology letter to the comedienne, talked a bit about working with her
in a way that suggested grudges had not been forgiving. “I remember the day we
were doing the tape scene,” he recalled. “I went to Marty and said, ‘Marty,
there’s so much angst going on. Jerry Langford has so much angst and anger at
this injustice that’s been perpetrated on him, and I think when he gets out of
the tape, he should punch her in the mouth.’ He said, ‘You wanna do that?’ I said, ‘More than anything in the world.’ I gave her a shot. Thank god I missed, because
she’d have been dead.” He added, charitably, “But she’s the reason for birth

Fortunately for Lewis, it was one of the few bits of reality
that intruded upon the picture. When asked if he’s ever experienced an
encounter with a Pupkin-type, he casually mentions, “I’ve had three or four
stalkers in the last forty years. They’re all gone. The sons of Al Capone have
been hanging out for me. I gave ‘em a call, told them, you should visit this
schmuck.” He shrugged, “You get out of it pretty easy.”

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