Punchline

| April 3, 2017

As someone who periodically goes through phases in which I obsess over standup comedy, I’d long been fascinated by the idea behind the film Punchline (1988), a film set in the world of standup comedy and starring Sally Field alongside the immensely funny Tom Hanks at the height of his comedy phase. The thing is, I’d always heard that the actual standup comedy in Punchline isn’t all that funny, which never came as much of a surprise, knowing the film was written and directed by David Seltzer, who wrote the horror classic, The Omen (1976). So I never went out of my way to see it. Learning the film was coming out on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment, however, I figured there’s no time like the present to see if Punchline is something of an unsung masterpiece or if the derision is warranted.

I know now that neither of those is the case. The film proved to be neither a masterpiece, nor some sort of legendary failed comedy. After all, it’s clear that Seltzer didn’t intend Punchline as a comedy, at least not a straightforward one. Seltzer clearly sought to use the film as a means of illuminating the often real human pain that underpins standup comics’ material, showing how these people’s troubled existences often lead to the funniest of jokes. In that way, the film could be categorized far more accurately as a drama than it could a comedy.

This doesn’t address the aforementioned claim I’d heard all too often that the standup in the film isn’t actually funny though. Is the comedy here akin to that of comic geniuses like Louis C.K. or George Carlin? No. Is it the kind of material you can imagine hearing during any given open mic night at a comedy club? Absolutely. Some of it Seltzer wrote to be purposefully awful, as characters bombing onstage is a common occurrence in the film, and many are rooted in racial stereotypes. Other jokes succeed in making me laugh either because the jokes were actually funny or because I’d become so invested in the characters that even their most minor witticisms could be endearing—I’m not sure which. The weakest comedy in the film can be found during the climax, in which the comics compete on a television show and all the comedy comes across like late-1980’s television comedy. So even there, I can’t say for certain Seltzer failed, as it may have been his goal to present us with some witty, if standard, television comedy.

Make no mistake though, Punchline is no comedy. One sequence actually takes us from a rather funny standup scene with rising star Steven Gold (Hanks) entertaining hospital patients to Steven talking to a child apparently dying of what we can only assume is cancer. Other times we follow Fields’ aspiring comic housewife Lilah Krytsick from The Gas Station comedy club into a domestic dispute with her unsupportive husband John (played beautifully by John Goodman). As a “dramedy,” Punchline leans most heavily on the drama.

Is it a film worth watching though? So long as you don’t go into it expecting a comedy and can overlook a few significant flaws. While I got a lot of enjoyment our Punchline and found most of its drama to be surprisingly affecting, Punchline does suffer from being set up as a comedy from the outset of the narrative. It opens with an amusing scenario in which Lilah buys dirty jokes from a guy at a diner in the middle of the night, played out of course as though she were buying drugs. This is immediately followed by a string of standup comedians telling jokes at The Gas Station, and then another clever scene in which Steven tries to fake his way through an oral examination in medical school. The drama that follows then could easily make some feel like they’ve been the target of a bait-and-switch.

Personally, I appreciate the poignancy that arises from juxtaposing the drama of these characters’ private lives with the comic sheen of their public lives. However, the film runs at just over two hours long, allowing the drama time to become downright oppressive. Again, that’s likely the point, but I don’t typically sign on for two-hour-long oppressive dramas.

What makes this experience of being pulled in a million different directions emotionally work for the film, though, are the performances. Not only does Hanks shine in his role of the brilliant but self-righteous Steven, but Field herself does a fine job with the legitimately funny standup her character develops later on. She’s a real treat to watch here. Other familiar faces pop up in the comedy club too, including Damon Wayans, Paul Mazursky, and Taylor Negron. But the man who brings the most heart to the picture is without a doubt John Goodman, a man who I believe doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for his immense talent. Goodman’s portrayal of John Krytsick found me torn between wanting to hate him and yet terrifically moved by his clear love for Lilah in the scenes where the family isn’t yelling at each other. His presence in the film provides the film’s drama a much-needed grounding in love in family, without which the drama would become unbearably oppressive.

If it sounds like I’m torn on Punchline, that’s because I am. I wanted to laugh more and be bummed out less. Yet I can appreciate what Seltzer was trying to do with the film artistically. So with those caveats discussed above, I do recommend Punchline to anyone with even a passing interest in the private lives of standup comics and how that translates into laughs.

The Blu-ray and DVD releases of Punchline from Mill Creek Entertainment include no special features. But the transfer on the Blu-ray is overall clear and clean, not to mention incredibly affordable at under $10!

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD

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