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.
This mock oral history by Heller (Slab Rat) is a comedic roller-coaster ride based on the partnership of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. New England dock worker Vic Fountain uses his striking good looks, impeccable stage timing and solid voice to become a big-band pop vocalist, only to struggle after a series of setbacks before finding his niche with comedian Ziggy Bliss. Bliss's story is even more compelling, particularly when Heller describes the hirings, firings and jockeying for position that even involved Bliss's parents as he battled to find his place in the world of borscht belt comics. Once Fountain and Bliss come together, the novel becomes more pedestrian, although Heller keeps things spicy by adding juicy backstage details about their unique chemistry and the gargantuan appetites of the two entertainers. Heller introduces a veritable armada of secondary characters to tell their stories, including managers, wives, ex-wives, children, etc., producing a nonstop, machine-gun style series of anecdotes and stories that works well in the early going as Heller describes the cutthroat competition among comics and entertainers. As he shifts to the well-known backbiting that took place when Martin ("Vic") left to pursue his movie and TV career, the stylistic trick proves more cumbersome and unwieldy. Longer and less focused than it should be, this is nevertheless a funny and illuminating story of two of the industry's post-WWII giants.