S. J. Perelman (1904-1979) was probably the funniest American writer of the 20th century. He was a master of word-play and a cultural parodist without equal.
S. J. Perelman was once described in these graphic terms:
Under a forehead roughly comparable to that of the Javanese or the Piltdown man are visible a pair of tiny pig eyes, lit up alternately by greed and concupiscence. His nose, broken in childhood by a self-inflicted blow with a hockey stick, has a prehensile tip, ever quick to smell out an insult; at the least suspicion of an affront, Perelman, who has the pride of a Spanish grandee, has been known to whip out his sword-cane and hide in the nearest closet. He has a good figure, if not a spectacular one; above the hips, a barrel chest and a barrel belly form a single plastic unit which bobbles uncertainly on a pair of skinny shanks. … A monstrous indolence, cheek by jowl with the kind of irascibility displayed by a Vermont postmaster while sorting the morning mail, is perhaps his chief characteristic.
That fanciful profile is from an introduction to The Best of S. J. Perelman and is signed, quite suspiciously, by one Sidney Namlerep ("Perelman" spelled backwards), who could write no more reverently about himself than about anyone or anything else. The real Sidney Jerome Perelman was born Jewish in Brooklyn on February 1, 1904, and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. His father worked, though not steadily, as machinist, dry-goods merchant, and poultry farmer. Perelman's earliest cultural influences were pop novels and movies, which were to provide much of the grist for his satiric mill.
Cartoonist, Satirist, Parodist
Perelman's first ambition was to be a cartoonist, and his earliest work was published in a number of college humor magazines, including the one at his own school, Brown University, which he left in 1924 three credits shy of a degree (trigonometry having thrice thwarted him). He became, in 1926, a regular cartoon contributor to Judge, a top humor magazine of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his more widely reprinted cartoons shows a man confronting a doctor and confessing, "I've got Bright's disease, and he has mine." In another, a woman in a soap commercial enters an apartment and says, "Don't mind us, Verna, we just dropped in to sneer at your towels." The big problem Perelman had has a cartoonist was that his verbal sense was more insistent than his visual, so that the captions kept getting longer and eventually replaced the cartoons entirely.
While at Brown University Perelman had become good friends with a kindred eccentric, novelist Nathanael West. In 1929 Perelman married West's sister, Laura, with whom he later collaborated on a number of plays and screenplays; their marriage also produced two children, a son and a daughter.
Perelman's first book, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge (1929), typifies his vernacular style, an unlikely but hilarious blend of strait-laced mandarin and wiseguy showbiz. Hollywood was sufficiently impressed by the book to hire him as a script-and-gag-writer, and he distinguished himself in the early 1930s with his screenplays for two Marx Brothers films, "Monkey Business" and "Horse Feathers, " in which his classic insane lines found the perfect foil in the zany persona of Groucho.
Perelman's apprentice work (1926-1931) at Judge, some of it reissued posthumously in That Old Gang of Mine: The Early and Essential S. J. Perelman (1984); his essays for The New Yorker, beginning in the early 1930s; his screen-writing (he won a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1956 for "Around the World in Eighty Days"); and his comic writing for the stage, including a play written with Ogden Nash, the 1943 hit musical "One Touch of Venus, " are all of a piece. They exhibit equally Perelman's zany irreverence and his verbal dexterity, and the target is always the same—pretence in all of its forms. Nor did he spare himself; he appears as a figure of frustration or cowardice in many of his pieces, either fuming over "assemble it yourself" instructions for mail-order items or dealing ineffectually with recalcitrant lackeys or cunning yokels.
Always an Irreverent Approach
Perelman was more of a parodist than a satirist—that is, he most often ridiculed other cultural forms. Typically he would seize upon an advertisement or a trivial newspaper or magazine item wherein he detected some absurdity which he would then amplify in a cliché-ridden form. For example, in "Beat Me, Post-Impressionist Daddy" (the title itself a parody of a pop tune, "Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar") Perelman's imagination was caught by the ad campaign for the movie version of "The Moon and Sixpence, " based on Somerset Maugham's fictionalized treatment of the life of Gauguin; the poster, quoting from the movie and adding its own commentary, proclaims, "Women are strange little beasts! You can treat them like dogs (he did!)—beat them 'til your arm aches (he did) … and still they love you (they did). " Pondering this dubious philosophy, Perelman proceeded to invent a series of letters between Gauguin and a Parisian friend in which the Tahitian-based painter complains, "My arms are so tired from flailing these cows that I can hardly mix my pigments."
In another piece, entitled "Button, Button, Who's Got the Blend, " Hostess Cup Cakes' boasts of a "secret chocolate blend" set off a Perelman playlet involving the secret formula's theft from the company safe and featured a cast of stock theatrical types: the noble hero who falsely confesses in order to shield someone; the real culprit, who is the hero's girlfriend's ne'er-do-well brother; the shrewd police inspector who guesses the truth; and so forth. A new method for dispersing stampeding buffalos, suggested by a correspondent to a British sporting magazine, gave rise to "Buffalos of the World, Unite!, " a hilariously wayward response by Perelman in which he assumed a stiff-backed, ultra-suspicious persona who opposed this newfangled challenge to a hallowed tradition: "I hold no buff for the briefalo—I beg pardon, I should have said 'I hold no brief for the buffalo, ' but I am too choked with rage about this matter to be very coherent."
Sometimes Perelman needed no immediate stimulus for his parodies. "Scenario, " for example, without preliminary comment launches forth on a patchwork excursion of clichés torn from a thousand war, crime, love, and adventure movies and pulp fiction stories: "There was a silken insolence in his smile.…No quarter, eh? Me, whose ancestors scuttled stately India merchantmen. … Me, whose ancestors rode with Yancey, Jeb Stuart, and Joe Johnston through the dusty bottoms of the Chickamauga? Oceans of love, but not one cent for tribute. Make a heel out of a guy whose grandsire, Olaf Hasholem, swapped powder and ball with the murderous Sioux through the wheels of a Conestoga wagon. …"
Perelman's comic essays give the impression that he was addicted to slick magazines, trashy fiction, commercial theater, journalism, movies, and advertising (he never troubled himself with television), but he was also in fact a serious reader, and some of his literary parodies are classic. Spoofing Clifford Odets' romantic Marxism, "Waiting for Santy" casts a capitalist Santa Claus as wage-enslaver of a reindeer proletariat (Panken, Briskin, Rivkin, Ranken, and Ruskin). "A Farewell to Omsk" (the title of which wings another literary bird) humorously captures the gloomy intensity of Dostoevsky: "An overpowering desire to throw himself at her feet and kiss the hem of her garment filled his being." "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer" is an impeccable take-off on the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler: "I kicked open the bottom drawer of her desk, let two inches of rye trickle down my craw, kissed Birdie on her lush, red mouth, and set fire to a cigarette."
Perelman's collections are largely gleaned from his work at The New Yorker; they include Acres and Pains (1947), Westward Ha!; or, Around the World in Eighty Clichés (1948), The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952), The Road to Miltown; or, Under the Spreading Atrophy (1957), The Most of S. J. Perelman (1958), Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966), and Baby, It's Cold Inside (1970), which introduced the raffish Irish poet Shameless McGonigle. But the best of Perelman, culled largely from Crazy Like a Fox (1944), is to be found, quite aptly, in The Best of S. J. Perelman (1947).
John Updike has said that Perelman was not a satirist who "made you dislike anything [but] a celebrant of his own past and of the books he had read, of the weeds on his Pennsylvania estate, and above all of the language itself." Not much rancor, but tons of iconoclasm, and no patience at all for Will Rogers' democratic boast about never having met a man he didn't like (which Perelman dismissed as dangerous claptrap).
Perelman had lived for 40 years on farm land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but when his wife died in 1970 he sold the property and, ever the Anglophile, moved to London. The migration was not a success: his first year there his overcoat was stolen in a restaurant; worse, Perelman's desire for English stability was thwarted by changes in the cultural landscape; finally, he missed the stimulus of his native culture. He returned to the United States in 1972 and took up an uneasy residence in New York City, which he had always detested. In 1978, a year before his death, Perelman was interviewed by public television and provocatively observed that of the various peoples that he had encountered in his many travels, only two lacked a sense of humor—the Germans and the French. He died of natural causes on October 17, 1979, in his Gramercy Park Hotel apartment in New York City.
Further Reading on S. J. Perelman
Though his writing gives no evidence of it, Perelman's family life was unhappy, as Douglas Fowler's biography, S. J. Perelman (1983), reveals. A new biography by Dorothy Herrmann, S. J. Perelman: A Life (1986), contains a great many more revelations. A collection of Perelman's letters, edited by Prudence Crowther, Don't Tread on Me (1987), is probably the humorist's last word.