|Directed by||David Seltzer|
|Produced by||Daniel Melnick
Michael I. Rachmil
|Written by||David Seltzer|
|Music by||Gary Anderson
|Edited by||Bruce Green|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|October 7, 1988|
Punchline is a 1988 American comedy film written and directed by David Seltzer and stars Tom Hanks as a talented young comic who helps a housewife, played by Sally Field who wants to break into stand-up comedy.
Steven Gold (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 (Field) is a dedicated housewife that also yearns to be a comic. She has the raw talent but does not have 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.
Steven also develops a romantic attraction to Lilah, which she rejects. Steven expresses his anger and frustration by performing a sarcastic rendition of Gene Kelly's famous dance routine from Singin' in the Rain.
The film culminates in a competition at the "Gas Station" comedy club where Steven, Lilah and other aspiring comedians have been performing. A judges' panel of television executives promise the winner a prime time opportunity and possible stardom. As they compete on stage, the characters also grapple with conflicts among their desires for success on stage, their loyalties to one another, and the expectations of their families. Pending the judges' final tally, with a note of support from her husband in her hand, and hearing Steven has only two of the five judges' votes, Lilah withdraws "in case the winner is me," and persists in leaving when the club owner reveals she was in fact the winner. She leaves with her husband, now an enthusiastic supporter suggesting ideas for her next set. Inside, Steven is declared the winner of the show, which reflects Lilah's judgment and that of their competing fellow comics.
- Sally Field as Lilah Krytsick
- Tom Hanks as Steven Gold
- John Goodman as John Krytsick
- Mark Rydell as Romeo
- Kim Greist as Madeline Urie
- Paul Mazursky as Arnold
- Taylor Negron as Albert Emperato
- Damon Wayans as Percy
- Mac Robbins as Billy Lane
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 television 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 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 unrealized scripts 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 as well as 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 movie. Once Field signed on, the budget was set at $15 million.
Field didn't mind sharing the majority of the screen time with 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 movie, recruiting fifteen comics to populate the comedy club Steven and Lilah frequent. Field's research often mirrored her character's as she remembers 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."
Two months before the Punchline went into production, Tom Hanks wrote a five-minute stand-up act and performed it at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. As Hanks recalls, "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.
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 film after Big (1988) became a huge hit. Punchline grossed a respectable $21 million in the United States.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. It has a rating of exactly 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 16 reviews. Variety wrote that "Hanks is the real reason to see the film and those who enjoyed watching him in Big will find a different, more realized comedian." Roger Ebert wrote that it "makes the fatal mistake of taking stand-up seriously. And if you’re gonna do that, you’d better have good material." One review in The Washington Post read that it "commits the unforgivable sin -- it's a movie about comedy that's not funny." Another review in the same newspaper declared that "Seltzer has certainly redeemed his past (ever catch that "Six Weeks" thing between Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore, or the Jon Voight "Table for Five"?). He should just avoid projects where you have to use the word "bittersweet" -- and grab at any others that star Tom Hanks."
- Van Gelder, Lawrence (September 30, 1988). "At the Movies: Seltzer's Next Project". New York Times.
- Harmetz, Aljean (September 25, 1988). "Punchline Comes up with the Last Laugh". New York Times.
- Kaliss, Jeff (October 13, 1988). "Fields finds being a comic is no laughing matter". Christian Science Monitor.
- Thomas, Bob (October 4, 1988). "Star Watch: Sally Field, a Stand-Up Comic?". Associated Press.
- Harmetz, Aljean (July 6, 1988). "Tom Hanks: From Leading Man to Movie Star". New York Times.