Feb 13th: “PunchLine” (1988)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
The clubs may have established stand-up comedy from coast to coast in America, but it wasn’t until television began to show comedians on the screen that people started to believe that they too could be the next Lenny Bruce, or George Carlin, or Richard Pryor. Late night television became a goal: to break as a comedian meant getting a spot on either the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or as of 1982, David Letterman was included in that break that would make them a household name. That was, for the prolific comedian, a rite of passage that had to be obtained. An Evening at the Improv (1981–1996) also began showcasing comedians on television on a weekly basis, Many were up and coming, but mostly, tried, tested, and already a regular success on the LA circuit. During the 80s, many comedians were also getting their breaks on television sitcoms, and if they were lucky, they were even getting roles in the movies. It came as no surprise that a movie about climbing the ladder to becoming a successful comedian would eventually grace the silver screen, but it wasn’t the “how to” event that everybody was expecting. In Punchline, success came at a price. The reality of the torment, the trials and the loneliness of committing to a life as a stand-up comedian is very evident. It might not be a guide, but it at least dealt with the reality, to a certain extent. In exploring this movie, I discovered that the torment wasn’t just exclusive to the life of comedians. Making a movie about comedians was just as grueling a challenge.
Tom Hanks shot the movie Punchline before working on Big, but with their release dates, reversed; Big was released only months before Punchline. This may have been a calculated decision to ensure that Hank’s work on Big, provided the exposure needed that would help to boost sales for Punchline — which was the smaller of the two movies. Big was a box office explosion for the summer of 1988, and sadly, the plan, if there was such a thing, didn’t pay off. Punchline did okay, but not great at the box office for its domestic release.
The story behind the making of this movie is probably similar to a lot of underrated movies: a script that had promise was shelved and forgotten about in the vaults of Columbia pictures studio. In 1986, the script was rediscovered and sent to Sally Field, whom at the time was hungry for a project, and was under contract with Columbia. Before Sally Field came on board with the project, Punchline was destined to be an $8m dollar small picture with no stars, but once Sally Field got a sniff of its potential, she jumped on board: a move that took the budget up to $15 with Sally agreeing to not only produce it, but to star as struggling comic, Lyla.
Hanks came on board as the more seasoned comedian Steven Gold — a talent who simply never found his breakout from performing in clubs for very little money. Lilah Krytsick, played by Field, is a Mother first, Wife second, and wannabe comic with a dream of doing comedy for a living. The trouble is, she has to do this in secret.
Her husband John (played by John Goodman) doesn’t support her creative ambition and believes she should be a dutiful housewife, and nothing more. She doesn’t know how to write jokes, and buys them from men in cafes. At first, when we see her in the act of passing money for jokes, we assume a great many other things: such as buying drugs, or hiring a hitman.
That scene with the joke dealer is an example of the black humour that this film has to offer. One of the film’s biggest hitbacks was that this was a charming film for Tom Hanks and Sally Field, who soon learn they need each other to get what they want in life, but the jokes, the acts, the comedians who are in this film simply aren’t funny. There is an assumption going in that this is a comedy. It looks like Hanks and Field are having a whale of a time on the cover of the poster. Advertising this as a feel good comedy was a post marketing mistake.
The darkness of the humour lies within the notion that the comedians who work these clubs can’t be all that good, otherwise they would all be getting booked to be on Carson, or Letterman. They have to be of a standard to which would keep them working those clubs. Tom Hanks — who is given a chance to bring his own crafted material to the table — is able to get a few laughs here and there. He needs to be funny, otherwise it wouldn’t be his personality that gets in the way of his achieving greatness.
The promotion of this movie was something of a let down. After filming Punchline, both Tom Hanks and Sally Field went on to work on other projects, almost immediately. Hanks was able to get lost in the challenge of being a child living in a man’s body in Big, while Sally Field, having been pregnant — with a child living in her body — during the Punchline shoot, had the baby, and straight into production with Steel Magnolias. The baby was present on the set of that picture the whole time. Sally Field finished shooting, went home for six days and then went straight back to work on the campaign tour for Punchline.
Both Tom Hanks and Sally Field looked exhausted during the press briefings… an for a moment, we would wonder, is Punchline going to be all that good?
When you put the torment of the comedians into perspective, the effort that went into getting Tom Hanks comedy ready to handle standing up and tuning into the motions of being a stand-up, it is a movie that is well worth your time. It’s certainly not a how-to movie when it comes to working the clubs, but more of a cautionary tale. It’s not easy. Those who do well make it look effortless for a reason. The truth is that, being a stand-up takes just as much time as it would take to become a professional at anything else of significance.
Press journalist (celebrity reporter) Bobbie Wygant — whom at the time covered the comedy circuit — likened Punchline as its own version of A Chorus Line. Tom Hanks agreed and noted that, “Both of what these people do, requires a single mindedness in their pursuit … If you’re going to dance, it requires hours and hours of training, and sacrifice, and loneliness, and an awful lot of, you know, sweat! To get up and do something that may or may not be appreciated by the masses; that will be observed, but not necessarily heralded. The same thing with comedians. These are people who get up night after night, alone. Totally alone. Of their own volition. With their own drives behind them. To perform material that they themselves wrote. Not everybody can do this. It requires a very particular type of temperament. It’s such a scary proposition, all the way around.”
Punchline is very much, a drama that says that practice makes good comedians, much like practice makes good dancers. At its core, it’s about sticking to what you believe is your path and making sure you go at it with everything that you’ve got, and more. Lyla was determined to prove herself in very scary world. Being a comedian is both good and bad, and everything in between just isn’t enough. It rides a very thin line between failure and success. I can imagine many struggling or aspiring comedians would have gone to see this movie, expecting clarity, only to come out feeling somewhat deflated. You can’t package inspiration in a movie about the starting run of being a comedian. That is the ordeal that goes with being funny, and this film shows that torment in a very strong and relatable way.
If you see this movie for what it is, rather than what is presented in its cover appearance, then it’s a much easier pill to swallow. It’ll stay with you, and you’ll want to go back, just to be sure you were right the first time. No expectations. Just solid drama about the business of being funny. Punchline for sure is a very underrated experience.
It’s fun to note that this was the first of two films that put Tom Hanks together with Sally Field. They would appear six years later in the movie Forrest Gump, as mother and son.
Written by: Stephen Radford