“Tomorrow, you’ll know I wasn’t kidding, and you’ll all think I’m crazy. But, look, I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.”
—Robert DeNiro’s “Rupert Pupkin” character in The King of Comedy.
If I were in charge of the Criterion Collection, I’d rush a super-deluxe Blu-Ray version of Martin Scorsese’s 1982 movie The King of Comedy into production. Because the Jussie Smollett story, assuming no last-minute twist ending yet appears to exonerate Smollett, feels very much like an ultra “woke” sequel to Scorsese’s controversial movie:
Unlike DeNiro’s pathetic Rupert Pupkin character, performing stand-up in his mother’s basement, Smollett already established a strong foothold in Hollywood, as his IMDB Q.V. illustrates. However, one of his goals, according to Chicago PD, in his alleged staging of the incident in “MAGA Country” in late January, was to increase his salary on the Fox series Empire, and presumably, push himself a few notches up the celebrity food chain.
Here however, Scorsese’s movie and Smollett’s story differ in a crucial aspect: Pupkin became a superstar at the conclusion of The King of Comedy through infamy. He kidnapped a talk show host obviously based on Johnny Carson, and as part of his ransom, demands that he be allowed to perform his bizarre stand-up routine on his show. The audience love the routine, and after getting out of prison, Pupkin’s autobiography becomes a surprise best-seller. It’s the world of Jerry Springer, nearly a decade before Springer’s show debuted.
Smollett has become infamous himself, but he was hoping that what John McWhorter of the Atlantic dubbed “victimhood chic” would do the same for his career as kidnapping did for DeNiro’s character, which itself illustrates how the largely establishment leftist overculture has mutated since 1982. And based on the massive initial outpouring of support from the overlapping worlds of showbiz, old media, and Democratic Party politics, Smollett was well on his way to superstardom, until his story collapsed.
But outside of local Chicago reporters, much of old media was willing to play along with Smollett’s claims, including Don Lemon of CNN, who reported texting Smollett daily. Just as The King of Comedy contrasts how we as TV viewers perceive what we see on slick, sanitized network broadcasts versus a much messier reality, the Smollett story allows us at least one opportunity to see how a television news anchor handles news, versus how she performs on a fictitious show. As NewsBusters’ Tim Graham spotted last week:
On Tuesday, the website The Blast reported that ABC staffers were immediately concerned about Jussie Smollett’s claims after he appeared for a Robin Roberts interview on Good Morning America. They reported that Smollett specifically requested that Roberts handle the interview because the two knew each other from when she appeared on an episode of Empire that aired last year.
So let’s take a look. On the April 11, 2018 episode, Roberts was much tougher on fictional Jamal Lyon (played by Smollett) than she was on Smollett in real life!
But of course! Smollett’s a celebrity — he deserves that special glad-handing, even from the world of “objective” “news.” Rupert would understand perfectly.
Hollywood Versus the Red State Menace
Modern audiences would likely find the lack of any sort of political motivation for DeNiro’s character to be a curious omission from Scorsese’s film. He’s simply desperate for that big break that goes along with appearing on the Johnny Carson-style talk show hosted by Jerry Lewis’ “Jerry Langford” character. Similarly, in real-life, Carson’s show, in order to maintain its then-massive viewing numbers, was legendary for its gentle touch towards politics and politicians, despite Carson’s own establishment left worldview.
Today, Hollywood uses the right, and Trump voters in particular, as pawns to advance its agenda — though this approach can backfire as well. In 2006, when Brokeback Mountain failed to top the $100 million mark in America, Mark Steyn wrote, “The more artful leftie websites have taken to complaining that the religious right deliberately killed Brokeback at the box-office by declining to get mad about it.” More recently, the director of “Lady Ghostbusters” hoped to use the right’s indignation to drive box office, until people of all ideological worldviews came together united in a common theme — that the underlying film sucked very badly. (See also: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)
In contrast, Smollett took an absurd double standard — that MAGA hat wearing Trump supporters view Empire as some sort of Sodom and Gomorrah-esque den of homosexual filth, and yet tune in every week to the point where they know who the heck Smollett is, and were prepared to jump him on a bone-chillingly cold Chicago night at 2:00 am. Or as Jim Treacher wrote on January 31st, “Like most Americans, I reacted to the alleged attack on Jussie Smollett by alleged Trump supporters, who were allegedly screaming MAGA slogans, by asking one simple question: Who in the world is Jussie Smollett?”
Now that he is indeed a household name, as with Pupkin eventually achieving his goal, it’s still entirely possible that Smollett could use his alleged hoax to leapfrog himself into a higher career status, or at least steady TV work, perhaps after the typical celebrity Oprah-approved reputation rehab tour. Certainly, being an unabashed hater of Republicans since at least 1998 has done wonders to keep Alec Baldwin steadily employed on television, long after his brief run as a matinee idol faded. If so, it will prove once again how prescient the theme of Scorsese’s movie was: it doesn’t matter what you do to enter show business, if the amount of fame — or infamy — your debut stunt causes, your fame and fortune will be assured afterwards. Just ask Al Sharpton, another television fixture whose career accelerated into the ionosphere via a faked hate crime.