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. 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.
In 1986, producer Daniel Melnick found the screenplay for Punchline among twelve other scripts collecting dust in the vaults of Columbia Pictures. Seltzer’s screenplay had gone through three changes of studio management because the executives didn’t like the mix of comedy and drama. They also didn’t like the Steven Gold character because they thought he was, according to Melnick, “obsessive, certainly self-destructive and could be considered mean-spirited.” The studio couldn’t get a major star to commit to the material and so Melnick decided to make the movie for $8 million and with no stars. Interim studio president Steve Sohmer didn’t like that idea and sent the script to Sally Field, who had a production deal with Columbia. Field agreed to star in and produce the film. Once she signed on, the budget was set at $15 million.
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.” New York comic Susie Essman and sitcom writer Dottie Archibald 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
Punchline‘s best moments are when Steven’s manic presence dominates the screen. Tom Hanks’ characterization deftly shows how tragedy and comedy are entwined. In one scene, his character has a gig at a hospital where he entertains a group of patients and doctors. Hanks is genuinely funny as he works the crowd, making fun of people’s injuries so that they forget their own pain for a moment. The beauty of this scene is watching how Hanks interacts with his audience and how convincing he is as a stand-up comic. For the actor, the allure of doing stand-up comedy was “walking into a room of 400 people and taking them wherever you want for 20 minutes. Steven is god of his universe as long as he’s got a microphone in his hand.”
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. Puttnam eventually left and Dawn Steel moved in and decided to release the movie after Big (1988) became a huge hit. Punchline grossed a respectful $21 million in the United States.
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.