Flop Sweat on Film: A look at Punchline, the shaky first step on the road to Louie, Maron and Lady Dynamite

By CCF Staff writer Jeremy Herbert

 

If any comic ever knew a thing or two about respect, it has to be Rodney.  He could give you a thousand and one reasons he wasn’t getting any without breaking a sweat.  Well maybe he would be sweating, but it wouldn’t be for nerves – he was just a sweaty man.  Funny, considering Rodney Dangerfield was one of only three comedians to earn the respect of Roger Ebert in his review of 1988’s dramedy-prototype about stand-ups, Punchline.

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The other two comedians given a pass? Jay Leno and Garry Shandling.  An eclectic group, to be sure.  But why was Ebert singling them out in the first place? To put it gently, he was no fan of stand-up comedians.  At least not at the time.

Dangerfield, Leno and Shandling, to him, were the only comics to elevate the self-loathing desperation of the craft into something above an exercise of naked, misshapen ego.

His words, not mine. Though I did paraphrase.

 

stand-up comics

August 3rd 9 pm Bop Stop Tell the bartender at the Bop Stop you have a ‘Secret’ to tell him & get in free.

Ebert seemed baffled by the sudden outgrowth of stand-up comedy. It was no longer relegated to the dead stretches of variety shows between Russian jugglers and a harmonica player or the five minutes of Carson you were allowed to miss until Burt Reynolds was on again.

Stand-up comedy was entering the mainstream. And not even a clumsy misfire like Punchline could stop it.

Before 1988, stand-up hadn’t made much of a mark on the big screen.  Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were among the only comics to see a special hit theaters.  Besides similar showcases, the only feature films to pay much attention to stand-up comedy were 1974’s Lenny Bruce biopic, Lenny, and 1982’s The King of Comedy, which startlingly if not convincingly explored the link between stand-up and mental illness.  The small screen fared better, but only just. George Carlin turned out an almost daunting number of specials for the burgeoning experiment in premium cable, HBO. A revolving door of promising young comics kept spinning at 30 Rockefeller Center as Saturday Night Live sacrilegiously struggled to find replacements for the holy cast of 1975 to no avail.

All of which makes Punchline a strange artifact.

The idea started in 1979 with screenwriter David Seltzer, best known for his work on The Omen, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and a movie about run-off from a paper mill accidentally creating a mutant bear.  Seltzer was spending time in comedy clubs for another project and thought the scene hadn’t yet been explored on film.  He wrote the first version of the script in the joyous tone of a movie similarly focused on a niche of the arts, the blockbuster hit Fame.

How would an overtly cheery flick about stand-up comedy work?  You’ve got me, but I’ll gladly take suggestions.

For one reason or another, the script languished until the late 1980s.  It was pulled out of storage, dusted off, rewritten and pushed into production.  It was to be a low budget feature with a relatively no-name cast.  Until Sally Field came on as producer.   That was enough to attract Tom Hanks and soon they were set to play the leads.

So where to start with Punchline.

The beginning seems natural.

The movie opens on a seedy New York street at that time of night when everything looks like an Edward Hopper painting.

Mousy housewife Sally Field anxiously crosses the mean streets and walks into a diner. You know the one. The one in every movie downtown.  She mumbles a cryptic code – “Romeo sent me” – to the only other patron and sits down.  The crusty-looking customer soon joins her and they exchange anonymous drug deal dialogue. Mention is made of “the stuff” and “the cash.”  A brown paper bag is revealed.

Anyone guess the gag yet?

Of course it isn’t drugs – he’s selling her jokes.

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She asks for proof of quality and he gives her a set-up for a Polish joke. She asks for the punchline and he says she’ll get that once she pays.

This opening scene pretty well sets the tone (or lack thereof) for the rest of Punchline.  The set is serious, even grimy. The actors do their best with what they’re given.  But nobody seems to know much about the actual practice of stand-up comedy.

It’s later revealed that Field’s character has spent $500 on jokes from this “dealer.” Five. Hundred. Dollars.  And we almost immediately find out that the joke isn’t even fresh; the audience shouts the punchline before she can even get to it.  There are hundreds if not thousands of joke books between two and ten dollars on Amazon, on specialized concentrations from zoo animals to your mother.  Even the most expensive joke book I could find on the site – Garfield’s Big Fat Hairy Joke Book – only came out to $472.97.  And that’s for a first edition, which I imagine has a return-on-investment not unlike a Matisse or Manet.

I realize that Amazon and similar services were but glimmers in the eyes of depressed science fiction authors in 1988, but I imagine there was at least one used bookstore in New York City.  They had to have a 101 Ghost Jokes or a Killer Knock-Knocks For Unfulfilled Housewives.  But no. This movie immediately asks us to believe in and care about a devoted mother who stays out almost every night to do stand-up badly and routinely wastes hundreds of dollars on canned, vaguely offensive jokes.

This is our protagonist.  This is Punchline.

Fields is unhappily married to none other than John Goodman, who tolerates her stand-up dreams only because he thinks it’s a phase.  While he does have solid arguments against her hobby (see: spending $500 on jokes), he’s pretty much an ogre. For most of the movie, anyways.  He’s her snarling opposition until he isn’t because the script needs him to be supportive all of a sudden.  It’s a sharp enough turn to give you whiplash, but it’s the only way the cop-out of an ending makes any sense.  Her kids, ultimately, are pointless.  More passive opposition to her dreams.

The movie also wants us to care about Tom Hanks’s character, a failing med student but thriving comic.  Unfortunately, that’s another tall order.  He’s got a confident swagger to him that not only threatens to but frequently does trip over the line of douchebaggery, to use a clinical term.  When Field first talks to him, he blows her off as a second-rate hack and ignores her.  But he does come back around when money’s on the table and she asks for his help in the ways of stand-up.  They spend time together. He tells her what’s funny (Manson jokes) and what isn’t (Son of Sam jokes).  Like clockwork, he falls in love with her in the full knowledge that she’s quite married.  He admits he regularly lies to women, but never when he says they’re funny because he’s a man of honor.  He even kisses Field.  When she turns him down, he snaps and starts singing in the rain.  That’s not me playing with words, either.  He runs into the rainy street and recreates some of the famous moves from Singin’ in the Rain like an unhinged madman.

To the movie’s credit, it’s a decent portrayal of a predatory male stand-up, warts and all.  Sadly I don’t think it’s at all intended.  We are supposed to like this man and want him to succeed.

Which is the central conflict.  Hanks might be a stand-up hotshot, but he breaks down in tears when talent scouts show up in the audience.  Field can’t tell a joke to save her life, but the audience has a natural love for her.  Together, maybe they can achieve everything they ever dreamed of.

But they don’t.

This movie wants to be a breezy comedy and difficult drama at the same time.  In the tussle, neither ends up working.

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One comedian dresses as a nun. Goodman bellows at his Field over a suspected affair.  Hanks harasses and vaguely threatens a woman scouting the comedy club.  Field frantically gets ready for a family dinner so her husband doesn’t know she was out with Hanks, set to the clichéd madness of “Sabre Dance” (look it up; you’ve heard it before).

It’s a weird ride and the weirdest part of all is the stand-up.

There are no bar basement open mics.  There isn’t a churning line-up of unpolished hopefuls laying it on the line.  There’s not much of a reason the comedy club in this movie, The Gas Station, should even be in business.

The same six-odd comedians plays every night. Hanks and Field are only two.  The others include the aforementioned nun, a guy whose entire act seems to boil down to a comically oversized boombox and a mime.  It’s like the writers got tired of coming up with different personas and jokes so they threw out anything even vaguely related to comedy.  I was honestly impressed by the time the credits rolled that a ventriloquist wasn’t wheeled out in desperation.  And that’s to say nothing of the actual jokes we do get to hear.  According to everything I could find on this movie, multiple stand-up comics came on as consultants.  Tom Hanks (disastrously) tried stand-up on his own before getting training.  Field also performed in preparation.  A bunch of comedians even show up in bit parts throughout the movie, most notably George Wallace.

But it’s a screaming shame that all the behind-the-scenes talent doesn’t come across in a single joke.

Everyone earns their participation trophies; they all do their best.  Field is supposed to be stiff as a corpse in the beginning and improve throughout, which she does, but at no point does she seem like a comedy club regular.  There’s little indication anyone had to really work to even achieve that level.  Goodman mentions she’s been on this little comedy kick for about six months.  Hanks shows her up by telling her he’s been at it for a year.  It’s supposed to be a statement of sobering commitment, the rough equivalent of a seventy-year-old vet scaring sense into a fresh-faced private with several days’ worth of Vietnam horror stories.  I know people who took over a year just to figure out if stand-up is even what they want to do.  I know people who have used a few of the same jokes for longer than a year. Two, even.

It’s one of many, many glaring blind spots in the film, where the reality of stand-up was romanticized, smudged or outright ignored.

But it’s not the worst example.

Just before the final showcase, Field and Hanks mend their proverbial fences.  They exchange friendly banter and peek at the crowd from backstage.  Standard “break a leg” stuff.  Until the very end of the scene.

Field says she’s trying out a bit of new material.  Hanks confidently tells her his entire set is brand spanking new.

For a showcase.

For talent scouts.

For a shot at The Tonight Show.

All. New. Material.

This from a character who forgot everything shy of the English language and cried the last time a scout was in the audience.

This lunacy is just a cheap-and-easy way to heap on some extra tension for the final competition.  It doesn’t work and the movie can’t even be bothered to let it make a difference.

If you still want to watch this picture on your own, here’s the part where I reveal the exciting conclusion.

Field goes out and kills. Well, kills by this movie’s definition.  But we know she grew as a person because her husband has turned around completely and is laughing the loudest from the audience, even at jokes about himself.

Hanks goes out and promptly blanks.  He insults the judges for a bit. Somehow he brings it back to his act and picks up steam again.  He also ends up killing (by this movie’s definition).

Backstage, the owner of The Gas Station tells everyone the judges want to announce the winner on stage.  Field finds out that she’s the winner, but she doesn’t want it anymore – her husband sent her a lovely note on a cocktail napkin.  She withdraws, leaving Hanks the winner.

Everyone goes out but Field, who makes a subtle exit.  Hanks is praised.  Goodman excitedly offers new jokes to Field.

Happily ever after, allegedly.

It’s disappointing in completely unintended ways.  Hanks’s character flatly didn’t deserve the opportunity. He didn’t grow. He still froze like January on stage. Field somehow finds solace purely in her husband’s approval.  It makes sense in the abstract, but the movie never spent the time to make that her quest.  That’s not to mention the fact that it’s cripplingly reductive for Field’s story.  All she needed to feel fulfilled in stand-up is to finally let her husband watch.  Sure, she turned down a guest spot on Johnny Carson which would’ve undoubtedly benefited her career and the livelihood of her family.  Sure, she’s ten years older than Hanks who will have plenty more time to develop his craft and work on his nerves.  But all that doesn’t matter – her husband approves and that’s what matters.

Punchline is a strange beast.

It’s a half-comedy, half-drama without any connective tissue. It stars a Tom Hanks who hadn’t yet settled into being America’s dad, a Tom Hanks who still played pricks once in a while and played them well (Volunteers, The Bonfire of the Vanities).  It’s entirely about a culture that it takes almost no time to understand, appreciate or communicate to the audience.  It carries a sexist, though perhaps prescient, lesson, that young white guys win in the comedy scene at the expense of the women they harass on the way. And ultimately it’s boring.

But there are brief, fleeting glimpses of wasted ideas and intriguing, if missed trains of thought.

When Hanks breaks down upon Field’s romantic rejection and dances in the rain, the camera watches him through the windows of the diner.  His singing fades, as does all natural sound.  All that’s left is the score.  A lonely piano from some forgotten film noir.  Hanks dances madly and merrily in the middle of traffic. Field cries from behind glass.  For this brief moment, Punchline predicts and approaches the melancholy poetry of Louie.

Two of the other stand-up regulars at The Gas Station hint at more interesting, more heartfelt stories left in the margins.  One, almost a perfect stereotype of the middle-aged man, is awful at stand-up.   Early on, the audience eats him alive.  He doesn’t have the charisma to command the stage or the back bone to stand his ground when hecklers challenge his claim to it.  Hanks provides him a simple comeback to use on the rougher customers, but he immediately forgets it.  Again, he shrinks in the spotlight.  Though he’s still there in the final showcase and his wife even drove him.  How did this guy end up as a regular at an established comedy club?  Why would the owner let him onto a showcase of his best talents? Why did he turn to stand-up in the first place?  Any one of those answers would provide a much more interesting movie than the one we get, but they would still pale in comparison to the other stand-up of note.

Immediately, this comic stands out.  He’s got a face like a catcher’s mitt and a voice like cracked asphalt. He’s at least thirty years older than the likes of Hanks and Field. His act always ends with a tune, more crooned than sung.  And he always tells the audience he loves them, but his first love is comedy.  This man has more heart than any other character in the movie. So what does it do to him?  Just before the big showcase, he asks the owner why he isn’t on the line-up.  The owner first says he missed a sign-up sheet.  The comic takes it hard, but takes it in stride. Then the owner tells him it’s a showcase for new talent, and he’s anything but.

The man deflates.

It’s the single most affecting moment in the movie.  A supporting character, nearly an extra, has his dream crushed and buried in front of his friends.  Nobody says anything about it.  The owner attempts a recovery by suggesting he sit in the audience and provide some laughter.  But it’s a cruel joke.

This character shows up once more, as Field thinks he’s having a heart attack and grabs Hanks to diagnose him (med student, remember? The movie barely does.).  He’s fine, just depressed, and tells Hanks he’s staying to see who won.

Then nothing.

That’s it.  He has no real resolution.  He is there during the finale, but his life is still over.  He’s still lost more than anyone else in the movie.  How did he end up in stand-up somewhere north of his 60s?  He mentions wanting to make the Ed Sullivan Show when it was still around, so he must’ve been at it for a while.  But that’s it.

We watch a comedian age out of the business in the background, nothing more than set dressing for Field to learn how to be a better wife and Hanks to get a lucky break.

 

Punchline was a decent success with audiences.  Critics, including Ebert, weren’t so friendly.  Most agreed that a film about stand-up comedy should be funny.  Punchline is not funny.  It wins a few laughs by attrition, but none of the stand-up is funny.  But Punchline isn’t really supposed to be funny.

Stand-up comics

Tell the bartender at the Bop Stop you have a ‘Secret’ to tell him & get in free.

That was a downright alien concept back then.  Sure, it is by no means a perfect, great or perhaps even good movie.  But most of the negative reviews focus on the confusion of a movie about stand-up comedy not being a comedy.

Season 4 of Louie has almost no laughs.  It won four awards and was nominated for nine.

There’s certainly a canyon between the quality of Punchline and Louie, but look at that.  Not only did a serious look at the life of a stand-up earn critical acclaim, it earned, for now, five seasons.

And that’s just the easy example.  Sitcoms (or at least sitcom pilots) are relatively new rung on the ladder for stand-ups.  It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond. The Carmichael Show was just renewed for a third season.  Broad City was renewed for a fourth and fifth.  Maron is diving deep into showing a comedian fighting addiction.  Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite is entertainingly and honestly exploring depression and bipolar disorder while also deconstructing the recent trend of semi-autobiographical TV shows about comedians (or comediennes, as the case may be).

Everybody and his-or-her brother, perhaps literally, has their own podcast.  WTF with Marc Maron blazed the trail for more stand-up podcasts than any of us could listen to in a lifetime.

The big screen hasn’t seen too many fictional features about stand-up, though Judd Apatow’s Funny People is a stand-out.  But documentaries on particular comedians, specific tours and stand-up culture itself are more common than ever before.  Stand-up specials continue to thrive on cable and streaming services.

THE CLEVELAND COMEDY FESTIVAL PRESENTS: THE NEXT LEVEL SHOWCASE AUGUST 3RD $5 9PM AT THE BOP STOP FEATURING: Hoboken Comedy Festival & HBO Boardwalk Empires’ DAN FRIGOLETTE!

Stand-up used to get no respect.  Sure, the hipper crowd and the comedy geeks might’ve been able to rattle off Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words, but they were hardly the rule.  The biggest exposure the average person had to stand-up was The Tonight Show.

But these days, stand-up is more respected than ever.

I’m not saying Punchline brought it that respect.  Very, very, very far from it.  It’s a patchwork quilt of a movie that’s missing half its patches.

But somewhere behind its misguided comedy and half-hearted truth, it hides the beginnings of so many movies, shows and podcasts that surround us today.

And that, I think, is the funniest thing about it.

 

For more articles like this, visit Jeremy’s film blog at whospilledmypopcorn.wordpress.com

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