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Punchline (1988)

Valerie Franch

Explores a dark side of stand-up comedy, but relies on stereotypes rather than shedding new light on the subject.


Director: David Seltzer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Sally Field, John Goodman, Paul Mazursky, Mark Rydell
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 1988
US DVD Release Date: 2002-07-09

Don't expect to laugh at this Punchline. David Seltzer's movie explores a dark side of stand-up comedy, but relies on stereotypes rather than shedding new light on the subject. One of these is Steven Gold (Tom Hanks), a hard-working comic whose love for his avocation leads to his failure in medical school. He's banned from the university following a pitiful performance on an oral exam, the culmination of a consistently poor record. To add to his devastation, he comes home to find that his roommate has locked him out of his apartment. Apparently, Steven's recent gigs at the local comedy shop, the Gas Station, simply don't pay the rent.

Though it's clear Steven is experiencing rough times, it's difficult to feel sorry for him. He's rude to the comedians with whom he works and his self-involvement leaves little room for friendships with anyone else. We feel pity more than sympathy when, after spotting his father in the audience, he breaks down while on stage. The crowd, prepared to be entertained, have little patience or sympathy for his confession that he has disappointed his father by pursuing comedy, his own passion, rather than going on to become a doctor. But Lilah Krytsick (Sally Field) understands his humiliation. An enthusiastic, if misguided, nurturer, she rushes to his assistance as he leaves the stage in disgrace.

As it happens, Lilah also works as a comedian at the Gas Station and struggles to earn laughs. She's a suburban, stay-at-home mother who has decided to follow her dreams and attempt to make it as a comedian. Her husband John (John Goodman) initially supports Lilah, but after she starts buying jokes "on the street" for $500, he thinks her obsession with comedy has reached an unhealthy extreme: he calls her a "junkie." Of course, the costly jokes don't help Lilah, and so she seeks assistance from Steven, the best comic at the Gas Station.

To help Lilah with her routine, Steven takes her on a circuit of comedy clubs. While she fine-tunes her techniques on stage, Steven falls in love with her. Or so he thinks: he says he wants to marry her and take care of her kids. But his proclamations sound insincere, even to us. Because the movie shows only limited interactions between the two characters, and they reveal no sexual chemistry whatsoever, Steven's love for Lilah appears misguided, to say the least, a function of his own neediness. It's like she's Oprah to his dad's more "realistic" Dr. Phil.

The movie's finale occurs in the same place they met, the Gas Station. The comedy bar is set to host a contest, a sort of Star Search, minus Ed McMahon. The winning comic will earn a guest spot on The Tonight Show (presumably with Ed McMahon). The climax is this comedy showdown, which, in keeping with the rest of the movie, is not funny. But we're supposed to think that Lilah and Steven perform successfully, because reaction shots reveal the exuberant laughter of the audience, the judges, and John, at last truly impressed, and proud of his wife. Lilah officially wins, but gives up her shot at stardom to return to her husband. After all, what else does a wife and mother require for fulfillment? It's the perfect ending: Steven gets to Carson and she goes home.

The DVD offers no extras. Those looking for movie, character or director insight will not find it here.

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