What's it like for a two-time Academy Award-winning actress to play a comedienne in a stand-up comedy competition? Sally Field found out in ``Punchline,'' a movie about the world of stand-up, in which she's co-starring with Tom Hanks. ``It's terrifying,'' she admitted in an interview during the filming. ``It sounds like a strange thing to say, but I don't think I like that much tension.''
Of course, this is a tension all too familiar to the growing group of working comics across America. It's also very much in character for Lilah Krystick, the New Jersey housewife played by Miss Field, who defies her husband and uses the comedy stage to make a midlife stand for self-expression.
Lilah seeks the help of Steven Gold, a cocky comic played by Tom Hanks, who has turned his own back on family pressure to finish medical school. Steven teaches Lilah the tricks of the trade.
In the film's climactic scene, the two end up as finalists in a competition where the language is rough but the aura authentic.
David Seltzer, who previously directed ``Lucas,'' is the director and scriptwriter of ``Punchline.'' He became entranced with stand-up while casting for a TV pilot several years ago. Checking out a New York comedy club, ``I became very fascinated with the environment and the characters who were parading before me,'' Mr. Seltzer recalls.
``I began to wonder what their lives were like, these people who were standing up there, hungry for laughs.''
The result was a script that lay around on a shelf for six years, until it was acquired by Columbia Pictures and brought to Field's attention. ``It was about the pain and struggle, the blood, sweat, and tears of wanting to perform,'' Field says.
Field sees in herself a tendency to comedy that extends back to her childhood. ``I suppose that's why I got the role of Gidget [in the 1965-66 ABC-TV series of the same name] at such a young age, without any sort of professional experience,'' she says. ``I was always the class clown when I was a little kid. ... I used comedy in my everyday life, as a lot of people do - as a way to get to know people without really being seen. I was shy; so it was my way to cover for my embarrassment.''
Field chose Seltzer's script for her second project as co-producer (after ``Places in the Heart''). Seltzer then scouted clubs for stand-up comics who could acquaint Field and Mr. Hanks with the club scene and the art of creating, timing, and refining their acts.
Field's advisers included New York comic Susie Essman and a West Coast performer and sitcom writer, Dottie Archibald, both of whom got small parts in ``Punchline.''
Hanks was coached by one-time San Francisco stand-up Barry Sobel and comedy writer Randy Fechter.
Serving as comedy consultant for the film, Ms. Archibald recruited some 15 fellow comics, whose presence enhanced Seltzer's attempt to set the behind-the-scene world of stand-up. The recruits ranged in age from 75-year-old Mac Robbins, a veteran of Catskill and Florida clubs,to 24-year-old Paul Kozlowski, once a member of a madcap Boston comedy team known as Uncle Stinky's Dipsy Doodle Revue.
The comedians and the stars worked hard and fast to create routines for the Steven Gold and Lilah Krystick characters, which were not fully developed in Seltzer's script.
``We sat around and stared at each other a lot and talked a lot,'' says Ms. Essman. ``It took us a very long time to figure out who Lilah was and what Lilah would be talking about.''
Lilah's comedy ``is very sad at first, because it's not related to what's going on,'' Field points out. ``She's trying to be funny, but from outside of herself, rather than just bringing it home where she really is funny, where she could talk about her own frustrations and reveal herself in a comedic way.''
Mr. Sobel praises the realistic club atmosphere created by Seltzer. ``There's a lot of desperation in the movie on the part of a lot of the comedians,'' notes Sobel, ``which I feel is on the nose of what it is to be a stand-up.''
The film's desperation and excitement come to a peak in the competition, set in a club scene created by Seltzer and company inside a giant sound stage in Burbank, Calif. The paraphernalia adorning the walls is pretentious; the bartender is a wiseacre; the waitresses move dreamily through a sometimes unappreciative audience.
``It's a cheesy comedy club like you'd find anywhere in the nation,'' says Sobel, who plays the part of the celebrity comic who judges the contest.
Between takes, Hanks wanders around the set in a T-shirt and sports jacket, joking with comics, journalists, crew, and anyone else who will listen to him. Field, pert and petite in a silver-striped suit, spends her own time off-camera huddled with Archibald and Essman, ``talking about how this joke works and that joke doesn't ... because we didn't have time to take the act out on the road.''
Field says making the film has given her new respect for the comedy craft. ``It's really a draining, exhausting thing to do,'' she says, ``not only because of getting up and working live three or four times a night, but because [comics] never stop thinking; they never stop looking at life.''