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

September 29, 1988|NINA J. EASTON | Times Staff Writer

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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