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Comedian Steven Gold is dancing in the rainy streets of New York City. Lilah, the woman who just rejected him, looks on through the neon glow of the diner window. Heartbroken, but always the funny guy, Steven puts on a show to make her feel better—his rendition of Gene Kelly’s famous scene from Singin’ in the Rain. She watches, first with laughter, then with mounting concern as Gold's routine becomes manic and unpredictable. He skates through puddles into the street, undaunted by the cars speeding past him as he continues to dance. Finally, he stops and looks back at her. No hint of humor on his face, only bitterness and pain. “Everything is a joke to you,” she once accused him. “Nothing is a joke to me. That’s why I do stand-up comedy.”
This scene from David Seltzer’s Punchline—executed brilliantly by Tom Hanks and Sally Field—is surprisingly somber for a movie about comedy. Then again, that’s what makes Punchline so great. It doesn’t shy away from depicting the darker side of comedy. Instead, it celebrates the talent comedians have to find humor in spite of darkness (and isn’t that a gift we could all use from time to time?). Tom Hanks is Steven Gold, a self-destructive man who uses humor as a defense mechanism to hide his vulnerability. Broke after failing out of medical school, he spends his nights doing stand-up at “The Gas Station” comedy club where he’s on the verge of being discovered. Sally Field is Lilah Krytsick, a New Jersey housewife who dreams of becoming a comedienne, even if it means alienating her family. She manages to charm Gold with admiration and convinces him to help her improve her act. From there Gold develops an attachment to her that creates more lamentation than laughs.
In retrospect, the casting of Tom Hanks as Steven Gold seems serendipitous. Today no one bats an eye when he's cast as a dramatic lead (it happens so often I actually long to see him do another comedy). But in 1988 he was known primarily for playing lovable goofballs in movies like Splash, The Money Pit, and Big. Naturally, people went into Punchline expecting another likable guy from Hanks, but what they got was his career-changing performance of a broken, angry man. Gold suffers from feelings of inadequacy after a lifetime of being ridiculed by his father and brother, both medical professionals, and his classmates for being too squeamish to make it through medical school. His anger about this is reflected in his sense of humor, which is mean-spirited and sarcastic. He repeatedly, and perhaps intentionally, repels people with his aggressive comedy. It also makes it impossible to tell when, or even if, you can ever take him seriously. The problem being that he’s rarely joking when he breaks into a tirade about how bad things are for him. Turning it into a joke shields him from the reality of it.
It’s Lilah who offers him solace when reality comes crashing in after his brother and father show up at the club. Gold has a meltdown on stage (another unforgettable Hanks moment) and no matter how much he insists, “I’m going to find something funny in here” he can’t escape their disappointment when it’s staring him right in the face. Lilah showing him the slightest bit of affection opens the floodgates and his feelings for her become extreme. He's convinced she should leave her unsupportive husband (played by the always wonderful John Goodman) and run off with him. Critics panned Field's performance and questioned the plausibility of her character as a love interest for Hanks. This might be a good time to point out one of the industry's longest running, and oh so tired, jokes on women in Hollywood: Field would be cast as Hanks' mother in Forrest Gump only six years later. These scenes between them are so endearing and the writing and performances make it obvious that Gold’s actions aren't really about Lilah at all. They’re about his desperate need to connect and be loved by someone. Anyone. Sally Field, who was technically the star and also a producer on the film, told the New York Times that she always knew her part was secondary to Tom’s and that it was more important to her to take part in making movies she hadn’t seen before. At the time a movie that took stand-up comedy seriously certainly fit the bill.
Punchline puzzled critics and audiences alike with its serious look at stand-up. Seltzer was known at the time for a horror movie (The Omen) and a teen drama (Lucas), so I have to wonder: what did they expect? As someone who prefers her comedy with a side of melancholy, I'd say that the performance from Tom Hanks alone makes this a worthwhile watch. And it's not as if the movie is devoid of laughs. A number of comedians make up the supporting cast and are featured doing stand-up in the club. The portrayal of comedy as a fleeting, competitive, and so often miserable environment champions a comedian’s determination to get back up on stage night after night. It makes you wonder what their reasoning is and what they’re getting out of it that makes it all worthwhile. For Steven Gold I think the answer lies in having a certain level of power over the room. Once on stage he’s in control of everyone's emotions and his intention is to make them forget their pain and suffering, even if it means making light of his own. It's the same reason he dances for Lilah in the rain, even though his heart is breaking. He doesn’t want to see her suffer, but more importantly, he doesn't want her to see that he’s suffering too.