Just a Couple of Stand-Ups : Sally Field and Tom Hanks Have a Lot Riding on Roles as Comics in 'Punchline'

Times Staff Writer

What makes a person funny? What drives someone to stand in front of a dark and smoke-filled hall, trying to pry laughter out of a sea of strange faces--which together have the power to send a comic home drunk on adrenaline, or leave an ego in shards on a lonely stage?

Tom Hanks still doesn't know the answer to the second question. But he does know something about the first. He knows, for example, that the seeds of his humor are very different from those of Steven Gold, the manic character he plays in his new film, "Punchline."

The seeds of Hanks' humor are wholesome, earthy, rooted. Gold's are unnervingly cold and sterile. It was Hanks, not Gold, who came from a "broken" home, whose nomadic childhood with his father and two siblings consisted of moves from suburban tracts to city apartments to farms. But Hanks' humor reflects how close that experience brought his family; flip dinner conversation in codes only they could decipher. Something about Gold's brutally stable home life left him alone and alienated.

"I've never played a guy who is so overpoweringly sad, yet at the same time someone you think is going to be able to redeem himself," says Hanks.

Hanks and his co-star, Sally Field, have a lot riding on "Punchline," which opens here Friday. The role of Steven Gold was a chance for Hanks, already riding high on the box-office success of the comedy "Big," to move to a whole new stratosphere of acting. Gold, he accedes, is the most complex character he has ever played.

Field will be judged for more than her role as Lilah Krytsick, a New Jersey housewife who finally pursues her dream of becoming a stand-up comic. Through her production company, Fogwood Films, Field also co-produced the film with Daniel Melnick, whose production credits include "All That Jazz," "Footloose" and "Roxanne."

"Punchline" represents Field's second, and most trying, stab at film production. Her first was "Murphy's Romance," a light-hearted commercial comedy in which she co-starred with James Garner. In contrast, Field describes her newest work as a "curious, difficult piece."

"Punchline" is a drama, at times a dark one, about comedians and the world of comedy. That alone makes it the kind of film that sends Hollywood marketing executives racing to their desk drawers for the nearest bottle of Excedrin.

To compound that difficulty, much of the film consists of portions of stand-up comedy routines by Hanks, Field and several professional comics. Editing those routines for film was a dicey proposition. "Stand-up comedy is a ballet," notes Hanks. "The timing is key to the overall effect. If you get in there and edit and take a joke out of context, it's ruined. It's like watching the highlights of a baseball game: Here's a guy who hit a home run. Here's a guy who slid into third. And the score was 7-3. You see none of the nuance of the game."

Despite those dangerous waters--and a script in which Field's character originally was tangential to the story--the actress/producer was intrigued by the project when then Columbia Pictures chief Steven Schmer brought it to her.

"It's about the bittersweet world of performing," says the two-time Oscar-winning actress. "Anytime you put yourself on the line with an audience you are revealing pieces about yourself. It's an odd desire."

To direct it, Melnick and Field hired David Seltzer, who had written "Punchline" in 1979, only to watch it sit lifeless, gathering dust in Columbia's files. Development and production of "Punchline" survived three different Columbia administrations. The film originally was scheduled to premiere last Christmas, but Seltzer's desire to tinker with it further, combined with the latest change in Columbia's management from David Puttnam to Dawn Steel, delayed it.

Hanks expressed interest in the lead role early in the project's development, and Field agreed to meet him one afternoon at Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica. "Yeah, I think I'll be able to find her," Hanks had joked.

Over lunch, Hanks convinced his soon-to-be-boss that he was right for the role. "He said to me quietly, 'I'm ready to do this kind of work,' " Field recalls. "And I knew he was right."

The filming of "Punchline" in early 1987, was a pressure-filled period for both actors. Hanks had just finished "Dragnet" and after "Punchline," was to move straight into production on "Big." In addition to being producer and star, Field learned during shooting that she was pregnant.

In between all of that, Field and Hanks needed to learn the very difficult art of stand-up comedy. For Field, it was a struggle to make her housewife character, and her stand-up routines, interesting.

"She's a normal, ordinary person," Field says of Lilah, "whereas Steven was an extraordinary person. We worried about whether she would be interesting enough to balance against his character."

For advice on stand-up comedy, Field turned to her friend Lily Tomlin, who told her flatly to get up on a stage. Field did, at a comedy club in Manhattan Beach. But the 45-minute routine turned into an audience question-and-answer session--as in, who are you dating?--with the film star.

Field then brought in two professional comics, Dottie Archibald and Susie Essman, to work up a routine for Lilah. As in the film, they hoped to draw on Lilah's life, but it wasn't easy. "No matter how you poke, punch or prod, it's boring," Field says of Lilah's appearance and life style. "But I had a feeling her comedy was sexually oriented." The end result is an uptight Jersey housewife who draws laughs by recounting her shock at the modern ways of love.

Hanks made an even more ambitious attempt to become a stand-up comic. "David (Seltzer) had written stand-up comedy in the script, but it sounded like it was out of a joke book and he had just put it there for the sense of it. It wasn't very funny. I said, 'David, this stuff isn't funny.' He said, 'Yeah, I know, it came out of a joke book.' "

Both Seltzer and Hanks recognized that to make those scenes work, Hanks would have to go out to clubs and work up his own material. With the help of comics Randy Fechter and Barry Sobel, Hanks went on the club circuit. In Los Angeles, he began to appear with some regularity at Igby's Comedy Cabaret, the Comedy Store and the Improv. "The first few times I was terrible," he recalls. "I thought I would have 4 or 5 minutes of material and I didn't. I had about a minute. The rest was all stammering."

While his material improved, Hanks still had moments when he stared at a sea of blank faces. "But there were also times when I destroyed them, just slayed them, and it came out of nowhere," he says. When they began production in New York, he continued to appear in Big Apple comedy clubs, often three or four times a week.

Before he took on the role in "Punchline," Hanks, who began his acting career with classical training, had only been on stage as a comic a couple times in his life. And during those times, he was the co-star of the TV show "Bosom Buddies." So whenever Hanks stepped on the stage as a comic, he had the advantage of being a well-known actor. With a face that familiar, an audience can be very forgiving.

Still, Hanks' preparation for "Punchline" enabled him to get an intimate glimpse of the lives of comics. Next to coal miners and policemen, Hanks is convinced, comics have the hardest jobs: "You have to travel across the country, doing two or three acts a night, talking to a room full of drunken strangers."

And despite months of preparation on stand-up routines, the audience reaction is swift and certain. "You don't need a clap-o-meter," Hanks says. "If they laugh, you've done your job. If they don't, you stink.

"It's like an author who has to sit alone in his room writing this book for a long time, then get up and read it to the New York Times Book Review. An act that lasts an hour-and-a-half is tantamount to writing a novel; it takes up 18 months of your life."

Every comic is different. But what drives Steven Gold onto the stage? "I think it's just horrible loneliness more than anything else," Hanks says. "And chromosomes. I just think he came out of the womb a little goofed up and there was no amount of influence that was going to change it.

"He needed the control of getting up on stage and holding sway over people. That's why when he gets up, he literally grabs those people and shakes them around, and stays up there longer than he is supposed to."

But Gold is a good comedian. The best in the club, in fact. For all his insecurities, for all his excesses, is Gold someone who will ultimately become a success? On that question, "Punchline's" co-stars are split.

"Yes, I really think he will, though I don't know that he'll be happy," says Field.

"No, I don't think so," says Hanks. "I don't think he'll self-destruct. But frankly I think it's a toss-up as to whether Steven is able to redeem himself or not."

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