SIGMUND "ZIGGY" BLISSMAN isn't the best-looking, sanest boy in the world. Far, far from it. But this misfit child of a failed husband-and-wife vaudeville team has one (and only one) thing going for him: He can crack people up merely by batting his eyelashes.
And Vittorio "Vic" Fontana, the son of a fisherman, is a fraud. Barely able to carry a tune or even stay awake while attempting to, the indolent baritone (if that's what he is) has one thing going for him: Women love to look at him.
On their own, they're failures. But on one summer night in the Catskills, they step onstage and together become the funniest men -- and the hottest act -- in America.
Funnymen is the wildly inventive story of Fountain and Bliss, the comedy duo that delighted America in the 1940s and '50s. Conceived as a fictional oral biography and filled with more than seventy memorable characters, Funnymen details the extraordinary careers of two men whose professional success is never matched in their personal lives. The two men fight constantly with their managers, their wives, their children, their mistresses, and those responsible for their success: each other. The stories recounted about Vic and Ziggy -- and the truths Heller reveals about human ambition, egotism, and friendship -- make Funnymen a wild ride of a novel that is also a rare and imaginative masterpiece of storytelling.
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April 01, 2003
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Excerpt from Funnymen by Ted Heller
ARNIE LATCHKEY [co-manager of Fountain and Bliss]: It's sad to say, but the funniest that Harry and Flo Blissman ever were was on the night that they were too dead to perform. Best thing that ever happened to Ziggy, his parents dying the way they did. Best thing. From a professional standpoint, of course.
SALLY KLEIN [Ziggy Bliss's cousin and co-manager of Fountain and Bliss]: When Harry met my Aunt Florence, she was one of the old Garrity Gaiety Gals; she had a wonderful figure, a fabulous face, but she was only five feet tall. Harry had two inches on her. But Flo could really belt it out; "a lion's roar coming out of an ant" is how someone once described her voice.
If Harry and Flo were passing through Philly, they'd stop over at our place. We had a front porch and Harry would go on the porch and sit on a swinging seat. He'd gaze off into the distance and he'd be mumbling and swaying. My mother told me he was doing their act in his mind, trying to get it right. Well, he may have been doing that or he might have just been talking to himself. With entertainers you can never tell.
My parents took me to see them once. Harry and Flo came on toward the middle and did a sketch about a wife who couldn't cook. The audience took this time to go to the bathroom or smoke cigars in the lobby. I really don't remember much about the act.
LENNY PEARL [comedian]: Instant amnesia, it was like -- as soon as they went offstage you forgot what you'd just seen. I was on the road with them for years. They were strictly a bottom-of-the-barrel, low-rung vaudeville act. A cough in the audience was like a standing ovation for them. They were the two tiniest things you ever saw, if you ever saw them.
Now, let's tell the truth here: the act failed. Before they signed with the Bratton circuit, they were on the Pantages circuit and they also had toured with the Keith and Albee companies. California, Oklahoma, Chicago, Florida -- they failed everywhere. But at least they got to see the country.