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It’s Morning in Joker’s America

Viewing Todd Phillips’s new film through the lens of the present misses the larger picture. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was the original Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. (Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

It is no coincidence that Joker takes place in 1981. It was an inauspicious year. Newly elected president Ronald Reagan — the most conservative man to sit in the White House in a generation — began his first term in office. Air traffic controllers went on an ill-fated strike. And Martin Scorsese, fresh off his critical success with Raging Bull, began filming one of the biggest flops of his career: The King of Comedy.

Released in 1983, The King of Comedy starred Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring but unsuccessful stand-up comedian, obsessed with his idol, the popular late-night talk show host Jerry Langford, played in self-parody by Jerry Lewis. Determined to book a spot on Langford’s show, Pupkin stalks him with increasing derangement, eventually resorting to kidnapping Langford, demanding the opening set that night as ransom. Pupkin is successful, performing to a studio audience blissfully unaware that they are applauding a violent, deranged psychopath. While Langford had insisted that what he does is so hard, Pupkin reveals that it is easily mimicked, packaged, and sold to an adoring audience that knows no better. The fool really can be the king.

But The King of Comedy sputtered at the box office, grossing just $2.5 million against its $19 million budget. While audiences were put off by its unsettling portrayal of celebrity fandom and violent resentment, critics were impressed, and the film has now become a cult classic. So much so that its story — and perhaps some of its politics — are clearly reflected in Todd Phillips’s Joker.

Scorsese was actually an early collaborator on the movie, and Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver drew heavily on the filmmaker’s well-known dark milieu, such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. But it is The King of Comedy that Joker may be most indebted to.

The trailers tell a familiar story: in the Gotham City of the early ’80s, sanitation workers are on strike, crime is up, and a wealthy businessman (Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father) is running for office. Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck comedian struggling with mental illness, slowly gets pushed into violent psychosis (Arkham State Hospital is no longer able to provide him with treatment due to budget cuts), and eventually is able to get on the late-night talk show of comedian Murray Franklin, played — of course — by Robert De Niro. As a result, we see the Joker as the figurehead of what appears to be a mass movement, a populist uprising that seems far more interested in violence and cultural expressions of anti-elitism than material goals.

Even before its release, Joker had been controversial for how closely its narrative fits with that of white male mass shooters. In her review for Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote that “it’s not as if we don’t know how this pathology works: In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week.” And the big-screen Joker has allegedly inspired at least one mass shooter, who killed twelve in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Whether one thinks Joker is reckless incel murder-porn or a provocative mirror to the deranged violence in our society, nearly everyone is viewing the movie through the lens of the present.

That may be warranted, but it misses the larger picture. It’s not coincidental that Joker is set in the early 1980s, nor that it hews so closely to The King of Comedy. In portraying a performer whose affable act masks deep resentment and violence, Phillips’s movie reminds us that long before Trump, it was Ronald Reagan who first used television to launch a mass, reactionary social movement, and with terrifying success.

Though John F. Kennedy famously used television to great effect — most notably in a 1960 debate with a pale, gaunt Richard Nixon — it was Reagan who truly understood the medium’s potential.

Unlike Rupert Pupkin or Arthur Fleck, Reagan saw great success as an actor, appearing in dozens of films from the late 1930s into the early 1960s. While that included many dramatic parts earlier in his career, it would be Reagan’s more comic roles in the 1950s that would define his public, and eventually political, persona — from his most famous role as a professor teaching a chimpanzee in 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo to his multi-year run as the amiable host of General Electric Theater. In fact, it was on his propagandistic, pro-capitalist speaking tours of GE plants that Reagan first learned how to deploy charm and comedy in pursuit of conservative causes.

By the time Reagan won the White House, it was widely acknowledged by supporters and critics alike that the Gipper had a knack for using comedy to his advantage. His quip to Nancy Reagan in the hospital room in 1981, after nearly being assassinated — “Honey, I forgot to duck” — immortalized him as the president with a sense of humor. Writing in 1984 on Reagan’s mastery of television, the New Republic’s Christopher J. Matthews observed that, “If times are tough, he can be cheerful. If critics are mean, he can be amiable. If his programs cannot sell themselves, he can apply the magic of the storyteller, the spell of the fantasist.”

It was this last dimension — the spell that Reagan could cast with a captivating performance — that The King of Comedy captured so well, and that is reflected in Joker (in one scene in the trailer, a curtain rises and we see Arthur, in his full Joker regalia, comfortably strike a goofy pose as the audience goes wild).

While Taxi Driver so famously evoked the naked, raging violence of post-Vietnam America, a society in the throes of stagflation, The King of Comedy shows the outcome of that period: one of charm and affability on the outside, masking the reactionary rage driving the country underneath. While wealthy whites could bask in “morning again in America,” the multiracial working class endured historic union busting and massive cuts to the social safety net. While Reagan smiled on television, he stole food stamps from a million people and oversaw a nearly 3-percentage-point rise in the child poverty rate.

And it was the combination of comedy, television, and celebrity that enabled this right-wing populist message to go down so easily. As the socialist economist Robert Lekachman famously quipped, “Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000 . . . If there is an authoritarian regime in the American future, Ronald Reagan is tailored to the image of a friendly fascist.”

The King of Comedy’s evocation of “friendly fascism” — quite literally, a violent populist who could get applause on a Johnny Carson–type show — was not missed in its time. Reflecting her publication’s class position, famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael panned the film’s harsh spotlight on the ’80s by bemoaning the passing of “a time when there were idealistic heroes and heroines in movies, a time when there was the promise of sexual fulfilment.” Her contemporary, the critic David Ehrenstein, derided Kael’s paean for a lost, pure America as “Sounding for all the world like Ronald Reagan.”

As Ehrenstein observed in his own review, “The trouble is The King of Comedy’s Here and Now cuts too close to the bone for either large-scale mass audience approval or unanimous mainstream critical acclaim . . . At a time when the film world piles on simple-minded sentiment in thick gooey gobs, a picture like The King of Comedy appears a frontal assault. The triumph of the ‘little guy’ is revealed to be nothing more than lumpen neo-Fascist blood lust.”

But for as much as The King of Comedy so expertly pulled back the curtain on Reagan’s smiling, laughing cult of violence, Joker has the potential to even more aptly portray an amiable, right-wing populist leader.

In the 1985 preface to his book Friendly Fascism, political scientist Bertram Gross quoted media scholar Mark Crispin Miller’s description of Reagan: “Like a good TV commercial, Reagan’s image goes down easy, calming his audience with sweet inversions of the truth . . . He has learned to liven up his every televised appearance with frequent shifts in expression, constant movements of the head, lots of warm chuckles and ironic shrugs.”

These physical attributes bear more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Pupkin, and Joaquin Phoenix’s terrifyingly human version of the Joker. But, Miller reminds us, the appearance of moral depth should not detract us from what lies behind the mask: nothing, a void of uncaring, maniacal ego. “The best way to keep his real self hidden . . . is not to have one . . . Reagan’s mask and face are as one.” In the crucible of reactionary violence, the line between performer and performance evaporates.

There’s no doubt that Joker’s allusions to Reaganism are more subtle than its mirroring of contemporary far-right violence. But, by invoking the politics of The King of Comedy, Phillips’s film can serve as a powerful reminder that the use of comedy, performance, and celebrity by right-wing populists today is far from novel. Today’s jokers may frighten, but they are mere copycats of the original chuckling and smiling king.