Funnymen

(by Ted Heller) (2012)

Dying is easy: comedy is hard.”* As is tragicomedy, which Funnymen achieves magnificently. Presented in the literary version of cinéma vérité, the book recounts (to a diligent interviewer called ‘Ted’ via sound-bites from a cast of over a hundred characters) the life and career trajectory of Sigmund Blissman (aka Ziggy Bliss) and Vittorio Fontana (aka Vic Fountain), who hook up in the Catskills and take their haywire mugging, kvetching, crooning act on the club circuit in the ’40s, forming a team that puts them on the top, from the Copa to Vegas to Hollywood and all points of the compass.

Along the way lie treacherous bandleaders, groupies, wives, ex-wives, agents, critics, nightclub owners, film-studio execs, magicians, musicians, drug addicts, homosexuals, forlorn offspring, minders and hangers-on, the lot, a dense cabal nearly all of whom have walk-ons and contribute to a rich pastiche of the slice of garish, grubby, funny-sad Americana that was its popular culture in that time. Whilst Fountain and Bliss are strongly redolent of Martin and Lewis (see main image & below), the author’s great achievement is to render them as genuinely lifelike, their own people, even when they seem larger than life.

Lewis and Martin at the Copacabana | Sonic Editions

At the Copa in 1949.

Vic’s ‘appeal’ is straightforward enough: the smooth Italian lothario-look, the turquoise hair, the lazy, insouciant, throwaway singing style, the casual aspect: one hand permanently clutching a Chesterfield or a scotch, the other up someone’s skirt. Bliss (like Lewis, whose appeal we still can’t fathom – his only decent film is King of Comedy, in which he isn’t comic at all) is more complex: an ugly Jewish misfit with a guilt complex, megalomania, and resentment issues. He’s a paranoid but then there are the lovely moments when the sun breaks through the clouds and self-awareness, then even kindness, make a break from cover. Vic and Ziggy have a love-hate relationship that grows over time to hate-hate, and finally, in their dotage, acceptance.

You’ll need to consume this Dickens-rich, Richardson-dense, Rabelais-ribald work for yourself, but here are some snippets that hopefully serve as an amuse-bouche:

Vic said to him, “Ernie, I don’t care if you like boys, girls, black, white, purple, or sheep or cats. You just keep cranking out them songs. Oh yeah. And just keep your paws offa me.”

“What would your parents want you to do, Ziggy?” I asked him. “That’s really a moot point now,” he answered.

“[He] sent flowers to Lulu when he returned [to Codport] and got her a nice hat with a kind of fur trim. That really bowled her over. Lulu’s first boyfriend was Vic Fountain. And her last.”

“When we heard Vic talking on the radio it was just amazing. It was the first time Papa ever really paid attention to the radio other than to shut it off or listen to Mussolini or the NBC Symphony. He was so proud.”

“I’ll sing. I’ll play with the kid. I’ll do whatever. The only paperwork I want you to give me has George Washington on it.”

“Jack Klein and Sally had been at Ciro’s the night before and Jack was laughing so much he’d had a mild heart attack. He would be okay, though, she told me, unlike the man three nights before who had seen the show, gotten in his car with his wife, and was still cracking up so much he drove head-on into another car and killed two people.”

“I’ve known a lot of funny people who weren’t ever in any kind of agony, who weren’t ever miserable or lonely, and I’ve known lots of unfunny people, believe me, who were.”

“I have to admit, I was getting nervous.  I didn’t really know if he was on the stage. “Jesus, do something,” Arnie softly muttered. But Ziggy was so funny that he could make silence hysterical, and people started laughing. And he let them laugh. “It was like silence was his partner now”…”

“”You were very, very funny,” I told him, and when I got into my car I almost started to cry.”

“He and Ziggy ran into each other that day, in the Sunset Lounge. They had Ziggy on medication, to take him off all them pills he was taking. He didn’t look any more like the Ziggy I’d seen on the TV than I did. He just looked like a little bent-over bald Jewish man to me.”

“I sunged ‘Malibu Moon’ without you Vic,” Ziggy said, “I’ll have you know.” “Oh yeah? How’d it go over?” “Well, for the first time ever, the audience was awake at the end of it.”

Funnymen By Ted Heller

[* Attributed originally in another form to Edmund Gwenn: lines actually spoken as written by Peter O’Toole’s character in the film My Favourite Year.]

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