The King of Comedy features Rupert Pupkin’s (Robert De Niro) story of his love for Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a late night talk show host. Pupkin’s love, however, borders on obsession and leads to a slew of complications for Langford and his staff.
If you’ve spent any time on any social media, you’d probably just think this was regular fan culture. Our society has widely accepted stan culture. If you’re unfamiliar with stan culture, I recommend listening to “Stan” by Eminem. Essentially, stan stands for “stalker fan,” or a fan who is so obsessed with a celebrity or a piece of media that they let it take over their entire lives.
People use “stan” interchangeably with “fan” quite frequently on social media, but there are few people who actually embody that term. One of those people is Rupert Pupkin.
Just a Fan?
Pupkin is not just a fan of Jerry Langford’s in The King of Comedy. A fan would just be someone who enjoys Langford’s comedy or likes watching his show. Even someone who watched Langford’s program every week or said hi to him in public probably wouldn’t be considered a stan. Pupkin moves past that with his behavior.
When we first meet Pupkin, he is part of a throng of people who swarm Langford as soon as he leaves the studio. These people are violent, pushing and shoving each other for their chance to see and touch Langford. Most of them want autographs but some people are scrambling to somehow have a personal conversation with him. Pupkin’s friend, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), goes so far as to get in Langford’s car, blocking his exit.
Eventually, Pupkin acts as a bodyguard and ushers Langford to his car and away from the crowd of people. Using this opportunity, he talks Langford into giving his stand-up comedy a chance. Langford, wishing only to get away from Pupkin, agrees and exits the car to his apartment.
The Entitlement of a Stan
The boldness with which Pupkin protects Langford and then violates his privacy by barging into his car is astounding. This is part of stan culture: denying the idol any form of privacy. Everything the idol does must be broadcast and stans have a perceived right to know everything about it.
Once Pupkin is given any sort of indication that Langford may be interested in his comedy, he hounds Langford continually. Pupkin visits the talk show host’s office almost daily, hoping to talk with Langford again and rocket into stardom. To Pupkin, the two are best friends now that they’ve shared a conversation. This makes Pupkin feel entitled to be as forthright as he is when trying to get to Langford.
Pupkin does not see Langford as another human. He sees him as a god of sorts, above all others, and thus must be treated differently. By removing the humanity, Pupkin’s mind goes full-on stan and allows him to treat Langford as an object that only exists for Pupkin’s admiration and worship.
The Eventual Fall
Stans cannot remain stans forever. Pupkin clearly illustrates this when he and Masha kidnap Langford and force him to give Pupkin a chance to debut his stand-up comedy on TV. It’s at this point that Pupkin realizes that Langford is just another person with a very public job. The curtain has fallen for him.
Pupkin no longer admires Langford in the way he did. However, he still has his dream of being a famous stand-up comedian. With the opportunity he has, he uses it to launch his career as a comedian. In the ending montage detailing Pupkin’s arrest and stint in jail, we learn that he eventually gained enough fame to have his own late night show. He has eclipsed Langford.
Most stans don’t end up like this. Most end up a lot like Stan in Eminem’s famous music video, becoming reckless and losing all sense of reality; while most stans don’t end up driving off a bridge into a lake as Stan did, it’s hard to recover when you don’t admit you have a problem.
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