By God, we loved comedy in the eighties - it was the new punk they told us. TV executives huddled together in tiny rooms, their pastel jacket sleeves shunted up to the elbow and their hands full of Kronenbourg. They laughed aloud as Alexei Sayle danced and Jim Barclay strode the stage in his tights and deeley boppers. Polemical performance poetry was so mercilessly mocked that it became redundant as a force for change and Jongleurs lacked the imagination to dream of all the money they would make from cheesey discos and chicken goujon sales in the next century.
Ben Elton was assassinating the art of political comedy with the expert eye of a Nazi sniper, his smug head would later produce many ghastly 'satirical' plays, novels, and allow him to have no qualms in allowing a song of his to be used at the inauguration of George W Bush. As a teenager I enjoyed his stand up. I even went so far as to buy his first LP where he, like so many others, tried to drag his middle class voice into the gutter so he was more street and relevant to the kids, but watching him now, ranting at the queen’s birthday about sun-dried tomatoes, makes me want to burn my Red Wedge T shirt.
The USA was also going through a comedy boom, every comic with half an hour's material would get his own special and people who once aspired to being Estate Agents now walked the stage of HaHa’s in Denver realising they could make twice the money with their funny Ronald Reagan voice and routine about processed cheese slices. So before long Hollywood had to come up with a movie that would pack them in about the vicious backstabbing, coke snorting, booze drooling world of stand up - but instead they gave us Sally Field as a housewife approaching the menopause whose lack of self worth, despite two children, a file of recipe cards and husband John Goodman, means she feels she must prove herself by making some strangers laugh in a dimly lit but surprisingly clean New York comedy club.
Sally of course is in place so that the over 30 lady demographic will be lured to the cinemas of their Midwestern wheat belt town - but what about something for the young bucks who will need to emote about something more than a shortfall in the cookie jar savings? Tom Hanks supplies the young rebel blood full of ire and wracked with pain via parental disenfranchisement. Tom plays a lad forced into medical school by his rich doctor father and highly successful siblings, but his dreams are not of placing his rubber clad fingers up an ancient rectum in search of a dodgy prostate - he wants to be a misunderstood funnyman crying
on the inside.
Tom works a comedy club called the Gas Station, run by Mark Rydell, director of senile celebration On Golden Pond. The club’s stage is populated by all the usual American stand up clichés: the heavily accented Hispanic character comic, the black comic who oozes attitude, a man dressed as a nun, a gut laden nervous teacher and an octogenarian Catskills comic. But the shining star
The only problem with this is that none of the comedians appear to be remotely funny - despite all their gurning, funny voices and bile rants they don't raise a titter. Stand-up is best watched live where the air hangs heavy with ominous portents of heckling and cigarette smoke. Once on television the words become anaesthetised and by the time you enlarge it to the big screen it becomes plain rank (exceptions would be Billy Connolly and Richard Pryor though the watering down of their potency from stage to screen is of Yates Wine bar proportions).
The routines performed by the acts in Punchline were purportedly written by comedians, but it appears that they kept the best ideas for their own touring acts (remember that toxic Lynda La Plante drama about a wretched tortured comedian where Mark Thomas supplied the words spewed?)
Director David Seltzer lacks the visual imagination to create any kind of mechanism that will make the transference of stand up stage routine to cinema stalls in any way exciting. This will be of no surprise to anyone who knows that he was also the director of Shining Through, undoubtedly one of the worst films of the '90s. This was the one that told the story of Melanie Griffith parachuting into Nazi territories and infiltrating their evil world, all for the good of chestnut-haired Michael Douglas, oh, and the free world.
To see stand up filmed with aplomb, watch Bob Fosse’s magnificent Lenny (and then watch his semi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz to get some idea of the work he put into it in the editing suite).
One day, into this manly enclave, arrives nervous Brooklyn housewife Sally Field. As she scrubs and cleans and prepares her children and her husband’s meals she realises she has become dumbed by her existence, she must find a way of speaking out, so her lonely voice can be heard - and stand up is the way forward.
Initially she is quite terrible, but somewhere in her gut and a brain is the mechanism that will create comedy gold, and through the teachings of Tom she learns to declaim her comedy to rapturous crowds.
But what of poor Tom? Without his father’s knowledge he has been thrown out of medical school for saying poop chute instead of small intestine, his secret comedy life is going fine until one day his brothers and father appear in the audience. Tom breaks down on stage and his family look on with justifiable disgust. Tom later has some sex with a TV executive but soon discovers that the media world is shallow and fickle. Tom shows that maybe laughter is the best medicine when he entertains some critically ill patients at a hospital. Sally realises he is a good man who wants to make the world a better place.
But then, the big TV comedy competition comes to town. Who will win - will it be Tom, Sally or the man nun? Tom overcomes his initial rebelliousness and storms the room, but Sally does an hilarious routine about being a housewife and how sex gets boring (how sex with John Goodman gets boring I don't know, surely the element of danger always excites).
Sally is declared the winner, but she doesn’t need that now, she has gained the respect of her husband by declaring how quickly he comes during intercourse and so the prize goes to second placer Tom. Everyone is super happy and the world is made better with laughter. Sally Field would go onto play everyone’s mum, especially in films where her offspring have cancer, confusion or are brutally raped and murdered. Tom went off to take Sally’s lachrymose baton when receiving Academy Awards for playing people who were very ill or confused (but not particularly raped and murdered). And comedy..? Well why not listen to 'Spanking New On 7' and decide for yourself..