The harsh reality of stand-up comedy is that for every Jerry Seinfeld that makes it, there are hundreds of comedians who don't. There are comedians who work dead end jobs during the day and spend the rest of their time working comedy clubs in the hopes of getting that "big break" on a late night talk show or a role in a film or a television sitcom. Some of them have what it takes but most do not. David Seltzer's film, Punchline (1988), is dedicated to and about these men and women who try to make us laugh. It also explores the dedication, the discipline, and the sacrifices that must be made in order to make it.
Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) is a struggling medical student who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. It quickly becomes evident that he is lousy at the former and excels at the latter. And yet, when he is given a chance at the big time, he cracks under the pressure. Lilah (Sally Field) is a dedicated housewife that also yearns to be a comic. She has the raw talent but not the command of craft that Steven possesses. At first, he doesn't give Lilah the time of day but slowly they bond and he teaches her the fundamentals of stand-up comedy. "All you need is the right gags," Steven tells her, and he's right. Once Lilah has some decent material she discovers her natural gift of making people laugh. An uneasy friendship develops between the two and the personal conflicts they must resolve: Steven's desire to make it big vs. his inability to do so and Lilah's love of comedy vs. her love for her family.
David Seltzer wrote the first draft for Punchline in 1979 after becoming fascinated by comedy clubs while looking for someone to play a psychiatrist on a T.V. pilot that he was writing about stand-up comics. He had a development deal with the movie division of ABC. Originally, the tone of the film was more good-natured a la Fame (1980) with more characters and less of an emphasis on Steven Gold. Bob Bookman, an executive, sponsored the script but left for Columbia Pictures. He bought the screenplay because Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) was interested in directing it. When Zieff lost interest (he ended up doing Unfaithfully Yours in 1984), the script was buried for years.
Field didn't mind sharing the majority of the screen time with Tom Hanks and taking on the role of producer because, as she said in an interview at the time, "as a producer I am not developing films in which I can do fancy footwork. I don't have to have the tour de force part." She asked her friend Lily Tomlin for advice and she told her to go on stage. Field went to a comedy club in Manhattan Beach but the 45-minute routine turned into a question and answer session with the veteran actress. She decided to consult with New York comic Susie Essman and sitcom writer Dottie Archibald who coached Field. The writer also served as comedy consultant for the film, recruiting fifteen comics to populate the comedy club Steven and Lilah frequent. Field's research often mirrored her character's as she remembered working “for about six months to find where Lilah's comedy was, which is what my character was going through. So it was actually happening to both of us."
Field met Hanks over lunch and was able to convince her that he was right for the role. She remembered, “He said to me quietly, I’m ready to do this kind of work. And I knew he was right.” Two months before the Punchline went into production, Hanks wrote a five-minute stand-up act and performed it at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. As Hanks recalled, "It was pure flop sweat time, an embarrassment. That material lasted 1 minute 40 seconds, and it had no theme." Hanks tried again and again, sometimes hitting three clubs a night. It took a month before the actor "didn't sweat like a pig" on stage. By that point he had enlisted an old friend and comedy writer Randy Fechter and stand-up comic Barry Sobel to help him write his routine. Hanks ended up performing more than thirty times in clubs in Los Angeles and New York City.
The first half of Punchline is a fascinating look at the inner workings of stand-up comedy and what it takes to make it. In this respect, Seltzer's film is an unflinching portrayal of this profession. As Steven tells Lilah, "It takes every night, six clubs a night, all night. It takes working stag parties and elk club parties where you're opening for a fucking accordion player." It is this kind of dedication that is clearly needed in order to be successful. Stand-up comic Sobel felt that the atmosphere of the film's comedy club was very authentic. "There's a lot of desperation in the movie on the part of a lot of the comedians, which I feel is on the nose of what it is to be a stand-up." For Hanks, the challenge in doing the stand-up scenes was to have “the routines as funny to the audiences in the theater as they are to audiences in the clubs in the movie. You can’t mark the script, ‘The audience erupts in uproarious laughter.’”
The film's weakness lies in Lilah's family life. Except for a wonderfully choreographed sequence where Lilah has to rush to get dinner ready for her husband (John Goodman) and his guests before they get home, the moments that feature Lilah with her family are where Punchline loses its energy and becomes a maudlin drama. This aspect of the film just isn't as fascinating as the parts dealing with the art of stand-up comedy.
Hanks is also able to show us the darker side of his character in a brutal scene where he has a shot at being discovered and ruins it. Steven does his act at a club with a talent scout watching only to realize that his father, whom he fears and loathes, is in the audience. The look on Steven's face before he does his act says it all — he knows he's going to blow it but goes on anyway. The scene is so painful to watch because it is in such a sharp contrast to the hospital scene. To a deafening silence, Steven starts talking about his relationship with his father before breaking down and crying in front of the audience. It is an emotionally powerful scene that is tough to watch and one that the film is never able to surpass.
And this is due in large part to Hanks who goes all out with his performance by showing such a wide range of emotions that swing from euphoria to bitter resentment. It's an unusual role for Hanks who usually plays nice guys. As the actor recalled in an interview, "He's not a lovable goofball. His difficulties don't make him a nicer character or a more sympathetic character but they do make him a darker character." Under Steven's very funny facade lurks a self-destructive, jealous person who will do anything to succeed. Is this what it takes to make it as a comedian? The film never really answers this question. Instead, it is left up to the audience to decide one way or the other.
Chairman of Columbia David Puttnam wanted to release Punchline during the Christmas of 1987 but the film wasn't ready – Seltzer wanted to tweak and fine-tune it. As one of the producers on the film, Field found working behind the scenes very demanding, disagreeing with Seltzer about the content of Lilah’s act and how much of it should be in the final cut. The filmmaker said, “Sally had a high degree of opinion and certainty about things. She ain’t the flying nun.” Puttnam eventually left and Dawn Steel moved in and decided to release the film after Big (1988) became a huge hit.
Punchline grossed a respectful $21 million in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote, “The problem may be that the movie isn't nearly tough enough. It needs to be more hard-boiled, more merciless in its dissection of egos, more perceptive about the cutthroat nature of show business.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Tom Hanks’ performance: “For the character to work, we have to think that he's in danger; that when he says he's going under we feel it and are frightened for him. But Hanks' big breakdown scenes don't have the sting they should, basically because he's too charming, even when he's falling apart.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “There is a credibility gap in both the screenplay and the casting. The driven, ambitious Steven might well fall for Sally Field, the Oscar winner, but he would probably flee from the sight of Lilah, the pushy amateur who is so witless she pays $500 for ancient material.”
The best comedy is about yourself, your life, what you know, and finding what is funny in that. Punchline taps into this truism by showing that comedians not only comment on their own lives but what they see around them as well. This film is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of the stand-up comedy profession and how tough it really is. There is a ring of honesty to these scenes that the rather sappy happy ending cannot diminish.
Easton, Nina. “Just a Couple of Stand-Ups: Sally Field and Tom Hanks Have a Lot Riding on Roles as Comics in Punchline.” Los Angeles Times. September 29, 1988.
Haller, Scot. “A Place in Her Heart.” People. October 17, 1988.
Harmetz, Aljean. "Tom Hanks: From Leading Man to Movie Star." The New York Times. July 6, 1988
Harmetz, Aljean. "Punchline Comes up with the Last Laugh." The New York Times. September 25, 1988.
Kaliss, Jeff. "Fields finds being a comic is no laughing matter." Christian Science Monitor. October 13, 1988.
Shepard, Richard F. “Have You Heard the One About Punchline?” Los Angeles Times. April 26, 1987.
Thomas, Bob. "Star Watch: Sally Field, a Stand-Up Comic?" Associated Press. October 4, 1988.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Seltzer's Next Project." The New York Times. September 30, 1988.