Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Punchline

I watched part of the movie Punchline last night. I don’t know if anyone remembers this movie. I’m guessing Tom Hanks wishes no one does, as it’s one of the few really bad movies of his career. It’s a movie about stand up comedy that doesn’t have a single funny line in it. And it’s intended to show the “real story” of comedy “behind the scenes”, a task at which it fails miserably. Steve Iott, a fellow Michigan native and one of the funniest comics around, summed this movie up perfectly – “Punchline is to comedy what Flashdance was to welding.”

Comments

  1. #1 John Farrell
    February 3, 2006

    Yes! But Joe vs. The Volcano is truly his worst in my opinion. :)

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    February 3, 2006

    Ed, what did you think of the Seinfeld movie he made after the show was over and he spent a year trying to come up with a new act for his standup? I thought it did a great job of going behind the scenes of what standups have to do to be good, but since you were in the business I was curious what you thought.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    February 3, 2006

    Jeff-

    I haven’t seen that movie, actually, but I’ve heard really good things about it. I imagine it would be interesting to see how Seinfeld works because he represents a certain type of comic. There are many different types of comics. There are those who are just naturally funny and their personalities are the key to their whole act, and then there are guys like Seinfeld, who are craftsmen. They craft the jokes, with every inflection and word perfectly in place. One of my best friends worked with a guy named Jeff Stilson, a very funny comic who is very much in the craftsman category. He said that Jeff had this big notebook that he kept with him and after every set, he would sit down and take notes on what worked and what didn’t and he would make subtle changes every show. He’d change a word here, or an inflection there, or his facial expression, or he’d insert a pause at just the right time, and then he would keep notes on how that changed the reaction to the joke. That’s how he went about his job in painstaking detail. I have great admiration for that. I suspect Seinfeld works in much the same way. There are many others like them. Larry Miller is another one, just brilliant. Bob Newhart really fits in with that kind as well. And then there are the Robin Williams’ of the world, where the writing is really secondary to their personality. Those aren’t the only two types of comics, but they’re two of the big categories.

    Incidentally, I think it would be interesting to put together a real movie about what goes on in the comedy world.

  4. #4 Jeff Hebert
    February 3, 2006

    One of the things I liked about Comedian (and apologies for hijacking this thread, but it is about standup!) was that a lot of it is Jerry sitting around a table with other comedians after they’ve all had their sets, talking about various aspects of the job of being a standup comedian. Very interesting to hear how different people do their thing.

    Anyway, worth checking out some time, it sounds like it hits the mark much more than “Punchline” (see how I bring it all back to the main topic!).

  5. #5 Ginger Yellow
    February 3, 2006

    “I’m guessing Tom Hanks wishes no one does, as it’s one of the few really bad movies of his career.”

    Eh? At a bare minimum, Bonfire of the Vanities, A League of Their Own, The Burbs, Forest Gump, Road to Perdition, and The Ladykillers are awful films. There’s probably a ton more from the 80s that I haven’t seen.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    February 3, 2006

    Did it show comics sitting around a table helping each other with material? That’s probably the thing I miss most about comedy, the informal brainstorming sessions. Bill Gorgo, a terrific Chicago comic, called it “riffing”, which I always thought was a great description of it. A lot of what you see on stage may have been written in exactly that way. One comic has an idea for a bit, just a general premise, and he mentions it while eating lunch or sitting around after the show. Another comic thinks it’s funny too and suggests a way to go with it, or a line that might work with it, and it just develops as you go. I’ll give you a great example.

    One of my good friends is a comic named Don Reese. He’s 6’5 and bald. The first time we ever worked together, and this is now some 16 years ago, we were talking and he said, “Last night I was doing a show and someone yelled out ‘you look like a pirate’ and I said ‘Arrrgh’ and the audience cracked up. I gotta find something to do with that, it’s a funny premise.” We played with it a little bit that week, the idea of something with Long John Silver’s came up. A few weeks later I was working with Don again and he said, “Oh, I’ve got that bit now. You’ll love it.” So this is what it evolved into:

    “I love my job. Of course when you look like me, you don’t have a whole lot of career options. It was either this or be a pirate, and they’re not hiring. You ever play pirate when you were a kid? I still do. I’ve got the whole outfit – hook, eye patch, hat. I keep it in the trunk of my car. Every once in a while when I’m bored, I’ll put it on, go into a Long John Silver’s, and tell them I’m the new district manager. I get free food and everything. ‘More hush puppies over here, you scurvy dog. Arrgh!’”

    “Give it to him, he looks important.”

    “Where’s your parrot?”

    “I’m new, I didn’t know.”

    It probably doesn’t translate terribly well in text, but it became such a hit with audiences that after a few months, people began showing up at his shows in pirate outfits. Another great example is a bit that Gorgo used to do about a true story from Wisconsin about a guy who got his dick cut off by a lawnmower (he actually had newspaper clippings to prove that it was a true story and he wasn’t making it up). It was like 10 minutes of his act, and he would joke on stage about how, originally, the joke was just one line – “Hey, did you hear about the guy who got his dick cut off by a lawnmower?” – but that so many other comics kept giving him lines to use with it that it just kept growing and growing.

    I gave him one line for it, but I don’t know if he ever actually used it. When he described how it happened he would say, “So this guy goes out in the middle of the night to work on his riding lawnmower…and apparently he’s real excited about the job…and all of a sudden this thing kicks on and WHACK – radical dickectomy.” My suggestion was that the next line should be, “Apparently, the lawnmower was a feminist” – long pause – “Nah, they don’t make riding feminists anymore.” I don’t know if he ever used that line or not, but I still think it’s funny.

    I’ll give you a third example, this one from my own act and again involving my buddy Don. I had this bit I would do about adult video stores, particularly about how the further you go into one of them, the further you get from the front door, the narrower and more specific the sexual categories got. Like the whole first half of the store was just your straight porno, then there was a section on gay porno, then a smaller section of interracial stuff, and so on. And they just kept getting more and more narrow until you got all the way to the back wall and there was one shelf with a single tape on it….and here’s where I got stuck and I just couldn’t find a really funny line for it. So I’m telling Don about this bit and he supplied the ending for me – “And a single tape on it, starring two albino midgets and a Teddy Ruxpin doll.”

    And that whole thing later led to a bit about playing the game of Stump the Porn Search Engine on the computer, just typing in as many random combinations as possible to see if anyone is into that – “Okay, teenage asian lesbian rodeo clowns…with trick shoulders….oh come on, I can’t be the only one!”

    Anyway, that’s how a lot of great comedy is written, at least for road comics. And that’s really the part I miss the most about comedy. Of course, the other side of that for me was that I was rapidly becoming a comic’s comic, meaning we would sit around and I’d tell them about a new bit I had written and the response would be, “That’s brilliant, but you can’t do that on stage, not in this area.”

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    February 3, 2006

    Ginger Yellow-

    Okay, Bonfire of the Vanities has to be the low point, no doubt. What a truly horrible movie that was, at least for anyone who read the book.

  8. #8 J-Dog
    February 3, 2006

    Ginger – I usually admire your succint pithy ID skewering comments, but I have to disagree with your Bad Tom Hanks movie callout. League Of Their Own is a great movie based on the J-Dog Family ratings, helped along by an athletic daughter that played varsity softball for 3 years. Great lines in that movie: “Hard is what makes it good. If it were easy, anyone could do it”. “I loved you in the Wizzard of Oz” after he accidently kisses the chaperone was good too! Great scenes – shot in Chicago at Cantigny, the McCormick mansion turned into a park, and the Jimmmie Dugan charater scratching and spitting was memorable. And who can forget the “No crying in baseball” scene? Well, since this is NOT ID, I feel it’s okay to quibble, so consider yourself quibbled, and I am going to get some popcorn and watch it again.

  9. #9 spyder
    February 3, 2006

    Every once in a while Comedy Central will put up a documentary about a small group of comedians touring here and there, or working some gig/scene in Las Vegas or Branson. They have three or four of these in rotation (though certainly not often enough), and there are some very revealing scenes of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes: practicing timing, “riffing” with one another, using everyday occurences to inspire subtle changes in structured jokes within the routines. Much of these behind the scenes are better and funnier than the actual on stage shows for my time.

    The growth of female comics is, i think, good for all of us. Some of them are extraordinarily powerful and really funny.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    February 3, 2006

    spyder-

    That’s the “Comedians of Comedy” show. You can see the uncensored full version of it on Showtime, which is much better. That show features a couple of the funniest comics working today, in my opinion – Patton Oswalt and Zach Galifinakis. And I’m with you, I really like the format. The big difference between that show and the real comedy experience is that you don’t get to all ride together in an RV with someone else driving in the real world, so a lot more time is spent in your hotel room alone.

    There are indeed some funny female comics around. The top right now, in my opinion, is Sarah Silverman.

  11. #11 386sx
    February 4, 2006

    Check out one of the skits from the new comedy smash, Flock of Dodos:

    “Olson and Calvert then search for Haeckel’s embryo drawings in the biology textbooks in Calvert’s library, only to find that they aren’t there — except in one published way back in 1915. Calvert then admits that he’s never bothered to confirm that what Wells’ writes in Icons of Evolution is correct.”

    Classic stuff!

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