Steve Martin, perhaps the finest stand-up comedian of all time, begins his memoir: “I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” In short, the message is clear, cracking jokes is no cakewalk. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks has such natural charm that you imagine that he couldn’t possibly fail—charisma, after all, can turn the most tired one-liner into a rib-tickler.
In 1988, the man lovingly known as Tim Honks among fans, starred in the box office flop loved by the Safdie brothers, Punchline. The film sees Hanks and Sally Fields star in the story of a “medical school dropout and a housewife trying to make it as stand-up comedians. They become friends and help each other out at a New York City comedy club.”
Never one to under prepare for his role, Hanks decided that the best way to portray a stand-up hitting the New York City comedy club scene was simply to practice as a stand-up hitting the New York City comedy club scene. So, was he any good? Well, in the audience at one of his sets was the hopeful stand-up Adam Sandler and he told Hanks: “You were good. You came up right away and comedians would be mad that you were calm and cool on stage. You were being yourself.”
In the dog-eat-dog world of comedy clubs, annoying other stand-ups is just about the finest seal of approval you can ask for. However, Hanks accepts that it was pretty much one of the hardest roles of his entire career. “Comedy is hard,” he explained, “because you know instantaneously whether your soup is good food.”
And speaking of food, that is largely the subject of his own recorded stand-up clip. Under the guidance of Barry Sobel, Hanks took to the Comic Strip stage and rattled off his rather dated take on a stereotyped service incident. However, his timing and enthusiasm are certainly apparent. While he wasn’t a huge star at the time, there were no doubt people in attendance hoping to see the actor flop and they were seemingly happily disappointed.
However, not every night went as swimmingly. He wrote a five-minute set for the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and recalled: “It was pure flop sweat time, an embarrassment. That material lasted one minute 40 seconds, and it had no theme.” Ultimately, he honed his craft and after a month, he was able to hit the stage without “sweating like a pig”. Fortunately for him, the filmed clip below seems to catch him in his refining phase.