Jerry Langford walks. Broadway and 51st, East 53rd, West 57th. He cuts a figure at one with his surroundings, in tune with the come-and-go ambiance—the ephemerality—of the city. He is of the people, a pedestrian among countless others. Or not.
‘Jerry Langford, right?’ The woman stops him, a magazine in her hand—as if it might, at any moment, become a weapon. ‘Oh Maurice,’ she tells the payphone into which she’s speaking, ‘please hold on.’ She asks Jerry to sign the magazine, showering him in praise, talking her way into talking more. ‘Oh Jerry,’ the woman continues, an improvised ambition swelling in her. ‘Please say something to my nephew Maurice on the phone. He’s in the hospital.’ That’s it: guilt the philanthrocapital out of them.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jerry replies, ‘I’m late.’ No sooner has he moved on than the woman—as if her previous kindness had been dependent on an immediate reciprocation, or on some default venom being actively withheld—spits: ‘You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!’
In midtown Manhattan, as is well observed, the grid reigns: straight lines, regular corners, an infinite crosshatch. The 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, which transformed the island into the latticed tapestry we know it as today, had its precedents. William Penn’s Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson’s expansion into the Louisiana Territory. One of the incentives, for Penn, had been water: ‘Be sure to settle the figure of the town so as that the streets hereafter may be uniform down to the water from the country bounds.’ Philadelphia was the first city to number its streets. The idea was equality—spatial divisions, and therefore entitlements to territory, were clear-cut. Growth followed. And money: the equality factor, the imposition of an even distribution by way of indexical abstraction, also made land easier to subdivide and to sell.
The blocks resulting from Philadelphia’s intersections, between frequent north-south streets (numbered) and less frequent west-east streets (which were named after trees), were spacious. As Lewis Mumford wrote in The City in History, however, ‘by the eighteenth century, as Elfreth’s Alley and many similar alleys still remind us, the generous original blocks were subdivided by streets and alleys that reduced living quarters to doll’s-house size, with open spaces correspondingly cribbed and cabined.’ Urban growth was a Frankenstein’s monster: the very aim of the great city planning projects that came to define and undergird American life since the eighteenth century, it has also systematically come to choke itself. Michael Sorkin calls it ‘the Cartesian fantasy: Thomas Jefferson never imagined the rush hour.’
The first casualty of busyness is time: in The King of Comedy, Jerry Langford is a man in constant demand. He can’t afford to stop; give an inch and they’ll take a mile (don’t, and they’ll hope you get cancer). Langford, a veteran comedian who has his own talk show, is played by another Jerry—Lewis. The comedian was in his mid-sixties by the time Scorsese FedExed the script to him from New York to Tahoe. Scorsese had wanted Johnny Carson; Paul D. Zimmerman’s script, about a lousy aspiring comic (Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert DeNiro) who stalks and eventually kidnaps his idol, was partly inspired by an Esquire article on a Carson stalker. Frank Sinatra had also been considered; Dean Martin too. Lewis loved it.
‘It was terrific. I’m in New York, four weeks later… Marty, Bobby De Niro and myself met everyday, and their questions to me were related to why I have no anonymity.’ Lewis, speaking for television from a San Diego boat in 2000, recalled this with incredulity: how was Robert De Niro able to live inanonymity? On set, Scorsese’s then regular muse did his thing: didn’t chat, kept to himself, declined a dinner with his co-star on the grounds their characters were adversaries. Shooting one scene, aiming to provoke a particular response, the one-time method actor goaded Lewis with anti-Semitic remarks. (Is Pupkin anti-Semitic?)
Lewis was a professional. Sitting, waiting, no doubt bemused by what must have seemed a sloppy way to make a film. Scorsese, on his way to something resembling a breakdown, would frequently show up late. It’s difficult to discern, in the final work, how much of Langford’s perpetual disgruntlement is Lewis’ own. But that, in its way, only reinforces the film’s themes: reality, fantasy, the shades in between. And the feelings of isolation colored by those shades: when Pupkin, a pathetic loner but for his equally pitiable companion-competitor Misha (Sandra Bernhard), gatecrashes Jerry’s country home, we find a man insulated and cut-off by his own fame. The second home, depopulated, is both a sanctuary from city life and an inevitable reminder of it.
In social terms, the urban grid’s most essential features are its intersections—the natural sites of assembly, at stoplights or not at stoplights, organized or otherwise. ‘Meet me at Madison and 53rd.’ Jane Jacobs was a big proponent of shorter blocks: more corners, she said, meant more people interacting. A richer, healthier, more diverse bustle. The sidewalk, to someone predisposed against such mingling, is to be avoided. In City of Quartz, his classic dissection of Los Angeles, Mike Davis takes aim at the active attempt to circumvent this essential, everyday feature of democratic living. In 1990, he wrote: ‘extraordinary design precautions are being taken to ensure the physical separation of the different humanities.’
Davis had noticed the appearance of two new parking lots in a section of Downtown, where the financial elite had to intersect with areas of the homeless and working poor on their way into work. ‘In contrast to the mean streets outside, the parking structures contain beautifully landscaped lawns or “microparks”, and in one case, a food court and a historical exhibit. Moreover, both structures are designed as “confidence-building” circulation systems—miniature paradigms of privatization—which allow white-collar workers to walk from car to office, or from car to boutique, with minimum exposure to the public street.’
In The King of Comedy, whenever he ventures outside, Jerry Langford must exercise caution. ‘We measure the environment against our perception of its perils,’ writes Sorkin. ‘Whether skirting dark streets at night, mapping and avoiding “dangerous” neighborhoods, or staying out of tall buildings, the human geography of the city entails assessments of convenience, pleasure, and risks. Our problem nowadays is that we are creating an urbanism predicated primarily on risk avoidance—one likely, in its more extreme versions, to have a terrible effect on fundamental ideas of the good city. To the degree that we acquiesce, we become complicit in a cycle of exacerbated paranoia, creating a bunker mentality.’
The many tensions in Scorsese’s film are rooted in this uncomfortable truth. Those cringe-inducing encounters, those excruciating one-to-ones, the conflict between a man who is incapable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy and a man who is imprisoned by his own success: they find their expression in The King of Comedy’s urban grid. As with the director’s most famous and popular works, this is very much ‘a New York film’. Though its opening credits unfold over a mid-action freeze-frame from the inside of Jerry’s car, for the remainder of the film his primary mode of passage is on foot—negotiating streams of admirers, vocal well-wishers, and people who feel entitled to his time, company and fame. In one scene, he has to run down the sidewalk to avoid an encounter with Misha; in another, he is literally kidnapped.
Lewis played Langford straight. When Misha forces him to dine with her, strapped to his chair, he gives her nothing. The actor, who in the scene in question looks truly fed up, was so irked by Bernhard’s own performance that he apparently suggested to Scorsese that, upon being untied, his character should punch his abductor in the face.
The King of Comedy is full of scenes, and moments, in which the performances of everyday desires are exposed, undermined, torn brutally open. Pupkin tends to be at their center: when his mother interrupts his attempt to record an authentic-seeming talk show, or when he visits Jerry’s studio and fails, persistently, to cotton on to the increasing hopelessness of his situation. Part of the pain (and hilarity) of witnessing this character pursue his dreams is due to our recognition, no doubt, of De Niro: here, the man who had embodied the more obviously destructive side of social alienation in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull appears so persuasively incapable of troubling anybody. Until, of course, he does.
But the sequence in which the film’s ideas of performance are properly and most fascinatingly thematized is that in which Jerry Langford walks. Exiting a building with a red-carpeted stoop, he is immediately greeted with a how-are-you. The cab driver to whose car the camera is attached is an actor—as is the woman, at the end of the sequence, who hopes he gets cancer. In between, though, Jerry Lewis saunters, drifts. In the original script, it was Robert Langford. ‘We're going to be shooting in New York, Marty,’ he said. ‘Do yourself a favor and call him Jerry Langford.’ Scorsese asked why. ‘Because everywhere we go in New York, your construction workers and cab drivers will validate that it’s Jerry.’ And they do: though such mythologies don’t take into account that Lewis was being followed and tracked at close range by a presumably conspicuous film crew, the resulting scene is a great instance of an actor playing himself—in public.
‘Inescapably,’ writes Sorkin in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, ‘the walk takes on a narrative quality. Walking is a natural armature for thinking sequentially.’ Thinking, acting, performing, being: I have always loved, whenever I watch The King of Comedy, the way Jerry Lewis seems to float through his street scenes. The hands—a cigarette pokes out from one like a permanently dislodged finger—seem more animated, more ready for action, than the arms: living matter at the end of two dead limbs. It isn’t quite an automated movement, but neither is it affected. An active embodiment, perhaps, of a lived-in fame: embrace, acknowledge, wave. An urban shark. Keep moving or die.