Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph)
S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman 1904-1979
American short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and scriptwriter.
Perelman is among the most esteemed and influential humorists in twentieth-century American literature, a group that includes such writers as James Thurber, Ring Lardner, and Robert Benchley. His essays, sketches, and stories, most of which were originally published in the New Yorker, display his sophisticated prose style, whimsical imagination, and talent for parody, wordplay, and social satire. Among his topics of ridicule were the entertainment and advertising industries, popular fiction and film, rural life, and foreign culture. Frequently, however, Perelman fashioned himself as the object of humor by revealing his personal foibles, which rendered him the hapless victim of a complex, turbulent society.
Perelman was born on February 1, 1904, in Brooklyn, New York, to a machinist, who had immigrated to the United States in 1892. He spent his early years in Providence, Rhode Island, and read with alacrity. His youthful interest in the written word, however, temporarily gave way to drawing while in college. He began his literary career at Brown University, where he first worked as a cartoonist and later as an editor of the Brown Jug, the campus humor magazine. After leaving Brown in 1925, Perelman was employed for four years as a cartoonist for the popular weekly journal Judge before joining the editorial staff of College Humor. During his stay at College Humor and his early years with the New Yorker, to which he began contributing sketches in 1930, Perelman developed the two-thousand-word format and extravagant prose style for which he was to become famous. His first collection, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge appeared in 1929, and included forty-nine comic stories, parodies, and witty sketches. This book Perelman followed with twenty-three more volumes, all featuring his decades of work for the New Yorker and other publications. Also a noted dramatist and scriptwriter, Perelman began to create his spirited works for the stage in the early 1930s, often as part of a collaborative team. Such was the case with All Good Americans (1933) and The Night before Christmas (1941), both written with his wife, Laura Perelman; Sweet Bye and Bye (1946), with popular caricaturist Al Hirschfield; and One Touch of Venus (1943) and The Beauty Part (1962), with Ogden Nash. Perelman also authored two screenplays for the Marx Brothers early in his career—Monkey Business (1931), in collaboration with Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Sheekman, and Horse Feathers (1932), with Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby—and cowrote a film adaptation of Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), for which he and coauthors James Poe and John Farrow received an Academy Award. Perelman died in 1979 while working on the stories and essays that appear in The Last Laugh, published posthumously in 1981.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Perelman's writings offer an eclectic blend of imagination, literary allusion, pun, droll humor, non sequitur, Yiddishism, satire, and wordplay. His sketches for the New Yorker and other popular magazines were collected in numerous volumes, including Strictly from Hunger (1937), The Dream Department (1943), The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952), The Rising Gorge (1961), Baby, It's Cold Inside (1970), and Vinegar Puss (1975). These and Perelman's other comic collections offer scores of inane, satirical, and parodic pieces. They poke fun at the popular figures of entertainment and literature—on many occasions ridiculing the purple prose of Perelman's contemporaries. Strictly from Hunger, for example, includes the sketch "Waiting for Santy," a parody of Clifford Odets's writing, and "Scenario," a send-up filled with Hollywood B-movie clichés. Perelman aimed "Counter-Revolution," a piece in The Dream Department, at the worlds of advertising and merchandising, in an attempt to humorously deflate this slick industry that daily bombards the American consumer with its products and slogans. Perelman also frequently approached the problems of everyday life in his sketches, such as "To Sleep, Perchance to Steam," a brief meditation on insomnia that showcases Perelman's trademark punning and self-mockery. In Acres and Pains (1947), Perelman turned his satire on rural life. Its thrust is apparent in Perelman's definition of a farm as "an irregular patch of nettles . . . containing a fool and his wife who didn't know enough to stay in the city." Further elements of Perelman's mocking and allusive sense of humor are apparent in the titles of his sketches, like "Dial 'H' for Heartburn" and "Methinks the Lady Doth Propel too Much" among countless others. In response to critics, who were eager to see Perelman's work on a larger scale, he produced several full-length humorous works containing stories and anecdotes from his travels in the United States and abroad. These books include Westward Ha! or, Around the World in Eighty Clichés (1947), The Swiss Family Perelman (1950), and Eastward Ha! (1977).
During his lifetime Perelman grew to be one of the most recognized and popular figures in American humor. Because his writing appeared almost entirely in the form of short sketches and journalistic essays, however, his works have been relatively neglected by scholars, who have often expressed regret that Perelman never endeavored to write full-length satire. While some extensive studies of his works do exist, most are summary examinations or contain relatively informal interviews. Still, the overall response of reviewers and critics of Perelman's works has been enthusiastic, tempered by occasional observations that have faulted him for failing to underscore his humor with insightful observations. Most commentators, however, disregard such criticism and instead focus on the brilliance of Perelman's wit, which has made him one of the most beloved humorists in the American literary tradition.
*Major Works of Short Fiction
Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge 1929
Parlor, Bedlam and Bath [with Quentin J. Reynolds] 1930
Strictly from Hunger 1937
Look Who's Talking! 1940
The Dream Department 1943
The Best of S. J. Perelman [republished as Crazy Like a
Fox, 1947] 1944
Keep It Crisp 1946
Acres and Pains 1947
Westward Ha! or, Around the World in Eighty Clichés 1947
Listen to the Mocking Bird 1949
The Swiss Family Perelman 1950
†A Child's Garden of Curses 1951
The Ill-Tempered Clavichord 1952
Hold That Christmas Tiger! 1954
Perelman's Home Companion: A Collector's Item (the Collector Being S. J. Perelman) of 36 Otherwise Unavailable Pieces by Himself 1955
The Road to Miltown; or, Under the Spreading Atrophy 1957
The Most of S. J. Perelman 1958
The Rising Gorge 1961
Chicken Inspector No. 23 1966
Baby, It's Cold Inside 1970
Vinegar Puss 1975
Eastward Ha! 1977
(The entire section is 310 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Strictly from Hunger, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 16, No. 14, July 31, 1937, p. 21.
[In the following review, the critic notes Perelman's wit, and places him among the top of American humorists.]
Few people would question Robert Benchley's position as the funniest man writing today. He would be the last to hold himself up as an authority on humor, but when he yields his own place in the field of humorous writing to another, it is important. If Benchley is anything (which we will assume for the sake of argument), he is honest. Therefore his tribute to S. J. Perelman deserves serious consideration.
Benchley alleges that he has been forced out of the competitive field of humorous literature by Perelman and is now on "movie relief." This statement, however graceful, is not entirely true. Benchley is good for another year of competition. Nevertheless the fact remains that Perelman is easily the second funniest man writing today. Perelman has been writing funny pieces for the magazines for ten years, unobtrusive little pieces, but all filled to the brim with a mad, uproarious humor. The best of these pieces are now collected. In his introduction to Perelman's book, Benchley writes:
It was just a matter of time before Perelman took over the dementia praecox field and drove us all to writing economics for the...
(The entire section is 471 words.)
SOURCE: "S. J. Perelman's Unlikely Statements," in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1943, p. 3.
[In the following review, Sherman discusses the subject matter of The Dream Department, and describes the volume as "lunatic and delightful."]
S. J. Perelman is no Peter Bell. A primrose by a river's brim would never be just a yellow primrose to him. It would always be something more. Likely enough in no time at all it would become a gigantic yellow sunflower, malevolently gnashing its teeth at him, and you too. Anyway Mr. Perelman is not a nature lover—nature faker would be more like it. His particular brand of jittery and joyful madness seems to be the slap-happy result of overexposure to books, magazines and advertisements. Give him a grubby little item in an obscure magazine, or a shiny big ad in one of the slicks, and his lunatic and ludicrous imagination grabs it, plays with it, worries it, until it has developed into a thing of monstrous hilarity.
It seems that he cannot look at a printed or color-engraved page without being haunted by the grotesque and fantastic possibilities that lie behind it, seen through the Perelman distortion lens. He can write in crazily humorous fashion along other lines (see ) but in The Dream Department most of the skits in the collection are hung on the peg of some printed peculiarity. Old magazines in dentists'...
(The entire section is 614 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Dream Department, in Time, Vol. XLI, No. 5, February 1, 1943, pp. 84, 86-7.
[In the following review, the unsigned critic recounts Perelman's life and brand of humor.]
S. J. Perelman picks up business where he left off with Look Who's Talking. One passage should suffice to give traffic signals to such readers as remain unfamiliar with Perelman's work. The passage was inspired by a notice to the effect that moving pictures would be used for department-store advertising. The title is Kitchenware, Notions, Lights, Action, Camera!
Scene: The music room in the palatial villa of Mrs. Lafcadio Mifflin at Newport. Mrs. Mifflin, a majestic woman in a slimpin Bemberg corselet well boned over the diaphragm (Stern Brothers, fourth floor), is seated at the console of her Wurlitzer, softly wurlitzing to herself. Mr. Mifflin, in a porous-knit union suit from Franklin Simon's street floor, is stretched out by the fire like a great, tawny cat. Inasmuch as there is a great, tawny cat stretched out alongside him, also wearing a porous-knit union suit, it is not immediately apparent which is Mifflin.
There are many other pieces under such titles as "Beat Me," "Post-Impressionist Daddy," "Caution—Soft Prose Ahead," "P-s-s-t, Partner, Your Peristalsis Is Showing." They handle, with the expertness required for delivering a two-headed...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
SOURCE: "Strictly Perelman," in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1944, p. 6.
[In the following review, Welty positively assesses the satire, parody, and wordplay of Perelman's Crazy Like a Fox.]
This looks like the unholy work of only one man. Reader, S. J. Perelman has struck again.
"Great, fatuous booby that I was"—these are the words of Perelman himself—"I imagined advertising would be destroyed from the outside. It won't; it's going to bubble and heave and finally expire in the arms of two nuns, like Oscar Wilde." Not if S. J. Perelman can help it, it won't. In fact, here lies the body before us now, with a sign left pinned to its jacket saying "Crazy Like a Fox."
Advertising is not the only victim of this man. With his Dyak-like tread he has crept up on the movies, on Corn, on Jitter-bugging, Bee-keeping, Fashion, then Chichi, and with a maniacal glitter in his eye has done his deadly work.
Read these random notes, torn secretly from the mordant evidence at hand. "I don't know much about medicine but I know what I like." . . . "A Schrafft hostess, well over nine feet tall, with ice mantling her summit, waved me toward the door marked 'Credentials.'" . . . "He caught my arm in a vise-like grip but with a blow I sent him groveling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing, fresh-picked grovels. We squeezed them and drank...
(The entire section is 850 words.)
SOURCE: "Perelman Carries the Nation," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 27, No. 28, July 8, 1944, p. 19.
[In the following review of Crazy Like a Fox, Sugrue characterizes Perelman as "the funniest man in America."]
The publication of a selection of S. J. Perelman's "best" pieces is the most ominous note in American history since the first arrow of the Seminole War whizzed through the Florida night air and found flesh. There is no mistaking the implication of the event. Perelman is turning his eyes to the past, and the future is lost. Secure behind a bastion of twelve million dollars, which he made in Hollywood in six weeks, he has begun to tear up his college notebooks, give away old sweaters, swear off opium, pay up his bill at the dry cleaners, and buy the French maid an annuity for her young son. In short, the old master—absit omen—is preparing to retire. Why else would his publisher give out with this forty-six course banquet, complete with dedication, title, and numbers on the pages?
The immediate effect of the retirement of S. J. Perelman on a nation whose predominance in the world depends squarely on muscles and laughter, is apparent and appalling. The muscles can get along without him—he has been getting along on borrowed muscles for years, and moves most of the time on wire springs. But the laughter of the country is another matter. Perelman is...
(The entire section is 811 words.)
SOURCE: "From Park Avenue to Opium Den," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1946, pp. 4, 25.
[In the following review, Maloney studies Perelman's Keep It Crisp, calling the book "superb."]
It is the traditional fate of great humorists to be admired and praised by vast hosts of people who misunderstand them. The classic example, of course, is Dean Swift, who hardly intended Gulliver's Travels to be a children's book. Mark Twain, a fairly embittered man in reality, is fondly remembered by his readers (even the readers of Huckleberry Finn) as a kind of forerunner of Bob Hope. And of course everybody remembers Ring Lardner, who wrote those baseball stories.
By good luck or good management S. J. Perelman has escaped this slack-jawed mass adoration. People who understand him like him, and people who can't understand him don't like him. His writing is hundred-proof humor, with none of the facetiousness that the usual funny writer throws in to make things easy for the home folk. Reading a two-thousand-word Perelman piece is, in fact, quite a workout; not unlike tangling with a judo expert. The reader is tripped up by his own clichés, expressions he has hitherto accepted as having some sober meaning, while the Professor stands by, not even breathing heavily.
There is no very exact word for the kind of pieces Perelman writes. He invented the form...
(The entire section is 1332 words.)
SOURCE: "Perelman on the Loose Again," in The New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1949, p. 27.
[In the following review of Listen to the Mocking Bird, Gilroy describes Perelman the critic, the world traveler, and the satirist.]
Here is a fine, light book, too light to break the nose of a dozing reader, which unquestionably enriches the recumbent culture season. The subject is the personality of Perelman, split in this collection of pieces from The New Yorker into three parts. There is Perelman, the book critic who deals exclusively in novels of the grand passion after they have ripened to a state of deliquescence; the world traveler who never fails at each stop to get into more trouble than the Swiss Family Robinson, and the reincarnation of Molière turned loose on chain drug stores and other American phenomena.
For the first of these roles it appears that Perelman was providentially educated—an observation not based solely on the fact that he studied at Brown University. At a time of life when his fellows were avoiding literature under the impression that it was nothing but classics, the boy Perelman was ruining his batting eye but sharpening his understanding on Elinor Glyn's "Three Weeks" and E. M. Hull's "The Sheik." As a young graduate in New York, he dabbled in illustrating while immersing himself in Maxwell Bodenheim's "Replenishing Jessica," Gertrude...
(The entire section is 646 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Parlor, Bedlam and Bath, in The New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1950, p. 9.
[In the following laudatory review, the unsigned critic examines Perelman's humorous narratives.]
In Parlor, Bedlam and Bath the Messrs. Perelman and [Q. J.] Reynolds have collaborated in an amusing and at times genuinely hilarious burlesque. The bad pun of the novel's title is no index to the nonsense in the bulk of the written matter. With a shaky skeleton of a narrative, the authors have dedicated themselves to the sole purpose of being entertaining and they have succeeded brilliantly.
The story, in its snatches of lucidity, celebrates the exploits of one Chester Tattersall, the dizzy son of a ne'er-do-well father who is providentially relieved of a life of clerking by the death of his uncle, Mameluke. Mameluke had had a talent for accumulating money and Chester found himself a gentleman of leisure. Armed with a large independent income, Chester explores life as it is sometimes to be found in Greenwich Village, speakeasies and other so-called amusement places of Manhattan. His principal encounters in this quest are of an amatory nature and his principal diversion between times is the consuming of large quantities of intoxicating beverages. Rapidly he passes through three love affairs with ladies he knows only by their given names and spends the rest of his time...
(The entire section is 350 words.)
SOURCE: "Perelman in Tune," in The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1952, p. 44.
[In the following review of The Ill-Tempered Clavichord, Robinson mentions the usual targets of Perelman's satirical wit.]
One of the more interesting mysteries of modern letters, to me, is how S. J. Perelman keeps it up. It was quite a number of years ago that he began writing humor, writing it keyed up very high every sentence of the way, and here he is, still sitting on the edge of his chair constantly writing for all he is worth and still being funny a large part of the time.
What probably happened was that he suffered the misfortune at an early age of succeeding with this generous, packed-down, economy-size style, and he has been stuck with it ever since. Most young writers try to write very intensely at the top of their form every minute, but nobody buys it; later on some of them take it easier now and then, and, lo! it turns out better that way. But poor Perelman was real good at the start, and nobody has let him get away with any coasting since then. He runs the 440 in a sprint—except that, strictly speaking, Perelman's really always running cross-country, and one of the wonders of it is that he almost always manages to get back somehow.
To people who haven't read Perelman it is impossible to explain what he does. Some writers are best when they are talking about...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
SOURCE: "Thirty-six by Perelman, And All Under One Roof," in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Vol. 32, No. 13, November 6, 1955, p. 6.
[In the following review, Kupferberg calls Perelman's Home Companion, "a quintessence of Perelman. "]
The title of this book is a little confusing. Is it a companion for Perelman's home, or Perelman's companion for other people's homes? The safest answer probably would be both. Doubtless you could find a copy, even a couple of copies, around Perelman's home, but it goes equally well elsewhere. As a matter of fact, Perelman probably doesn't have as much fun reading it as most other folks do, for even a man fond of laughing at his own jokes couldn't find these little tales quite so hysterically funny as the unprepared and innocent reader.
The convulsive effect of this collection of thirty-six brief but not cursory inquiries into human affairs is not, however, due to their novelty. All of these pieces have appeared in print before; the point of this book is that it brings them together under one roof, providing, in effect, a quintessence of Perelmania.
Perusing this most companionable of Companions, one is struck with the rapidity with which Mr. Perelman reduces the peruser to a state bordering on idiocy. The author will take note, let us say, of a brief paragraph in a society gossip column wherein a young heir learns that...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
SOURCE: "Humor Takes in Many Things," in The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1957, pp. 1, 36.
[In the following review of The Road to Miltown, Parker proclaims "Mr. Perelman stands alone in this day of humorists."]
It is a strange force that compels a writer to be a humorist. It is a strange force, if you care to go back farther, that compels anyone to be a writer at all, but this is neither the time nor the place to bring up that matter. The writer's way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats? In all understatement, the author's lot is a hard one, and yet there are those who deliberately set out to make it harder for themselves. There are those who, in their pride and their innocence, dedicate their careers to writing humorous pieces. Poor dears, the world is stacked against them from the start, for everybody in it has the right to look at their work and say, "I don't think that's funny."
It is not a pleasant thought, though, I am afraid, an unavoidable one, that there cannot be much demand for written humor in this our country today. For the supply is—with one exception—scanty and shopworn. There are quantities of those who, no doubt, if filling out a questionnaire, put, "Occupation, humorist," but their pieces are thin and tidy and timid. They find a little formula...
(The entire section is 1268 words.)
SOURCE: "'You Mustn't Say Things Like That'," in The Nation, Vol. 187, No. 18, November 29, 1958, pp. 410-12.
[In the following excerpted review, Gibson lauds Perelman as a humorist skilled in the use of language, but not as a great writer.]
The publication last month of The Most of S. J. Perelman, should remind readers that we have in our own country, a comic writer who has been carrying on a consistent and eloquent attack on dead language since about the time Mr. [Kingsley] Amis was born. Perelman has been quoted to the effect that Joyce is the greatest comic writer of our time, and that observation helps to suggest the particular quality of his own humor. It is a humor, richly represented in this handsome collection, that depends on the strictest sensitivity to the corniness of contemporary public language, laced (as he would say) with wild juxtapositions of traditional literary glop. The effect is somewhat as if Joyce had been, as Perelman has been, a writer for Hollywood and gagman for Groucho Marx. Admirers of Joyce will want to point out a few differences—that Perelman never wrote a great novel hundreds of pages long, for instance. In fact some of Perelman's six-page sketches are too long already, and there is rarely any development out of the given situation of madness, fairly simply defined. Still, the madness is certainly given, and nowhere more fantastically than in the...
(The entire section is 1373 words.)
SOURCE: "S. J. Perelman's The Most of S. J. Perelman; Baby, It's Cold Inside, " in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, Vintage Books, 1979, pp. 235-40.
[In the following reviews of The Most of S. J. Perelman and Baby, It's Cold Inside, originally published in 1958 and 1970 respectively, Welty admires Perelman's wit and cast of humorous characters.]
Give him a cliché and he takes a mile. "The color drained slowly from my face, entered the auricle, shot up the escalator, and issued from the ladies' and misses' section into the housewares department." "I sent him groveling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh-picked grovels. We squeezed them and drank the piquant juice thirstily." Spring returns to Washington Square: "It lacked only Nelson Eddy to appear on a penthouse terrace and loose a chorus of deep-throated song, and, as if by magic, Nelson Eddy suddenly appeared on a penthouse terrace and . . . launched into an aria. A moment later, Jeanette MacDonald, in creamy negligee, joined the dashing rascal, making sixty-four teeth, and the lovers began a lilting duet."
Our garden of prose has no more been the same since a certain silky party put in an appearance than the Garden of Eden after the Serpent called. S. J. Perelman—for it was indeed he—has this to say by way of a concluding note to this collection of thirty years'...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)
SOURCE: "S. J. Perelman, I Presume," The Spectator, No. 7006, October 5, 1962, p. 519.
[In the following review of The Rising Gorge, Flanders comments on the richness of Perelman's humor.]
In a world whose serious side is all too insecurely poised over an abyss of absurdity, the humorist can barely avoid hitting the truth from time to time.
But for the workaday he remains an entertaining liar: entertaining only in so far as we know he lies, and he knows we know he knows. So it was in the great American folk myths; in the dream world of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed and Texas-size; of a simple, peasant people and their tall tales of superhuman strength and cunning. And so it is with S. J. Perelman and the other inverted Munchausens in the New Yorker School of humorists; that glossily urbane group of superbly articulate intellectuals and their unlikely tales of simple bewilderment, tongue-tied gaucherie and cowardice in the face of Modern Living.
Until corrected, I date this inevitable smart switch, from tall story to small story, back to Artemus Ward, whose collected works will repay more study than I care to give right now.
It was a grand scene, Mr. Artemus Ward standing on the platform, talking; many of the audience sleeping tranquilly in their seats; others leaving the room and not returning; others crying like a child at...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Rising Gorge, in The Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 1962, p. 940.
[In the following review, the critic observes that Perelman's jokes, while "imaginative and versatile, " on occasion fail, becoming little more than mechanical gags.]
Most of the sketches in this book have appeared before, in The New Yorker. Mr. Perelman is an accomplished and famous comedian, who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with James Thurber. Peter De Vries and other celebrated contributors to that magazine. In common with them he is high-spirited, imaginative and versatile. Puns, parodies, pratfalls are all in his compass. He is excellent on New York—for example, in Greenwich Village,
the Method actors with stormy faces and fat ankles, the models as angular as the Afghans who drew them along, the leather craftsmen nursing dreams of sandals too abstract to contemplate.
He is, like Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, a connoisseur of the bizarre and the corrupt, the Hollywood-Broadway-Miami axis, places that have an atmosphere of "immense, weedy lethargy, reminiscent of a bankrupt miniature golf course".
But something often goes wrong with his humour. His characteristic method is to take an item from a magazine or newspaper, and use it as the excuse or text for an extravaganza,...
(The entire section is 547 words.)
SOURCE: "The Art of Fiction: S. J. Perelman," in S. J. Perelman: Critical Essays, edited by Steven H. Gale, Garland Publishing, 1992, pp. 3-16.
[In the following interview, originally published in 1963, Perelman discusses his influences, association with Hollywood, and the seriousness of his humorous style.]
S. J. Perelman has an eighty-acre farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (where the house is "shingled with secondhand wattles"), a Greenwich Village apartment, and a no-nonsense, one-room office, also in the Village. It was there that the interview took place. The office is furnished like a slightly luxuriant monk's cell: a few simple chairs, a desk, a cot. On the walls are a Stuart Davis water color and photographs of James Joyce, Somerset Maugham, and the late Gus Lobrano, a New Yorker editor and close friend of the author. The only bizarre touch is David Niven's hat from Around the World in Eighty Days, mounted on a pedestal.
Mr. Perelman, trim and well-tailored, is of medium build. His hair is gently receding, and graying at the temples. He wears old-fashioned steel-rimmed spectacles, bought in Paris many years ago. He is soft-spoken and reserved, sometimes chilling, and gives the impression that he does not suffer "nudniks" gladly. He cares about words in their proper places; in his speech each sentence emerges whole and well-balanced, and each generally contains one...
(The entire section is 4322 words.)
SOURCE: "The Sane Psychoses of S. J. Perelman," in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, Iowa State University Press, 1964, pp. 331-50.
[In the following essay, Yates characterizes Perelman's fictional narrators—types of the literary Little Man—as "sane psychotics."]
As if American fiction thrived on impending disaster, 1929, the year of the Great Crash, saw the appearance of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth. The production of "light" literature was no less interesting than that of "heavy." Three "first" books of humor were published by writers destined for prominence in that field: Is Sex Necessary? by Thurber and White, How to Be a Hermit by Will Cuppy, and Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge by S. J. Perelman.
Sidney Joseph Perelman was born in Brooklyn (1904), but grew up mainly in Rhode Island. At the Classical High School in Providence he was chairman of the debating society, to which he once contributed what he calls "a philippic entitled 'Science vs. Religion,' an indigestible hash of Robert Ingersoll and Haldeman-Julius." He went on to Brown University, where he had "a brief, precarious toehold as assistant art editor" of Casements, a literary magazine. At Brown he became part of a group of...
(The entire section is 6989 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Chicken Inspector No. 23, in The Times Literary Supplement, November 23, 1967, p. 1101.
[In the following review, the unsigned critic remarks that the pieces in Perelman's Chicken Inspector No. 23 are "as furiously and fluently disenchanted as ever."]
Some people "have" S. J. Perelman in the way that others "have" French, Urdu or Chinook, and the test of their competence is how many and memorable are the chapter titles they can quote. For the list of contents in a book by Mr. Perelman is more precious than the actual texts of most other funny writers. Chicken Inspector No. 23, his first collection in five lean years, contains at least one title to be thankful for: "Nobody Knows the Rubble I've Seen/Nobody Knows but Croesus," and the essay that follows—about househunting in Hollywood—is just as good.
Most of the thirty-three pieces in this book are as furiously and fluently disenchanted as ever. There are one or two displays of the rural incompetence celebrated long ago in Acres and Pains, characteristic attempts to look at the world from a chicken's and even a mackintosh's point of view, an aggressive Balkan travelogue which turns genuinely grumpy. But the best of S. J. Perelman, as usual, comes when a mind quick to take fright is flushed from its rational coverts by sinister little items clipped from newspapers and...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
SOURCE: "Last of the Classy American Humorists," in The Washington Post Book World, September 6, 1970, p. 9.
[In the following review of Baby, It's Cold Inside, Freedman finds Perelman's humor, though funny, largely reminiscent of a bygone era.]
With Benchley and Thurber long among the archangels, and Frank Sullivan emerging from his Saratoga fastness only at Yuletide, S. J. Perelman is the last of the really classy American humorists.
Not that there aren't lots of very funny chaps around—Tom Wolfe and Marvin Kitman pop into mind—but the short, personal, intentionally humorous feuilleton as practiced by the masters of the Thirties and Forties seems to have gone the way of the auk and the haircut.
John Crosby has fled to England, Art Buchwald has gone stale lately, and Russell Baker is engulfed in the marmoreal gloom of the Times format, which would make Mark Twain read like Mortician's World. Yes, only Perelman is still at it, as blissfully heedless of "relevance" as P. G. Wodehouse, covering page after page with the thick impasto of his baroque prose.
The antique charm of his latest collection of causeries is emphasized by the fact that most of it first appeared in The New Yorker (which now is edited for, and perhaps by, the little old lady from Dubuque), and by its dedication to yet another wraith from the...
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SOURCE: Review of Baby, It's Cold Inside, in The Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 1970, p. 11.
[In the following review, Nordell comments on the "verbal vaudeville" of Perelman's writing.]
Publishing this book in 1970 is casting Perelman before swine, to use one of his favorite words. The world has changed more than Perelman has. If I don't laugh out loud at his pages as often as I used to, the deficiency has got to be mine, not his.
For four decades the books have been coming, adding up to a fabulous rococo monument of comic invention. In this first collection of pieces since 1966, the wordmanship remains dazzling.
But it sometimes suddenly seems more and more about less and less. One admires the edifice of fantasy rising from a tiny news item, for example, appreciating the exactitude of the hyperbolic detail. Only it isn't so much fun anymore. It includes topical references, but it doesn't connect with the tone of the times as it once did, and one has to allow that the times may be more out of joint than Mr. Perelman.
BACK TO CLOUDLAND
The present pieces take him from Ireland to England, Hollywood, New York, exurban Pennsylvania. Reading them recalls his marvelous "Cloudland Revisited" series on the novels and movies of his youth. For his central character is a carefully preserved first person from the...
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SOURCE: "Meisterzinger," in The Atlantic, Vol. 226, No. 6, December, 1970, pp. 108-10.
[In the following review of Baby, It's Cold Inside, Kanfer comments on Perelman's influences and literary influence, as well as the aim of his humor.]
Thirty-two mind-expanding master-works that make any trip—other than to your neighborhood bookstore—completely unnecessary . . . S. J. Perelman: "Baby, it's Cold Inside " . . . Right on.
—Advertisement in The New York Times
Had you been reading with Holmesian detachment and Moriartic zeal, you would have noticed a cunning homunculus hanging, mandrill-like, from these lines. Judge-sober, kite-high, and mud-clear, he was one of Nature's noble creatures or, perhaps more accurately, one of Barnes & Noble's nature creatures. A schlemiel-in-itself, with a nose no larger than the prow of the Statendam, a voice that shamed the memory of Farinelli, the great Neapolitan castrato, and a mustard-keen ability to separate the amateur from the prose, I (for let us dissemble no further, reader) was holding a mirror to the King, parodying the one, the imitable S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman.
Imitable because all masters of the language can be put to the pastiche. It is always the original who attracts the mockingbirds, not the...
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SOURCE: "Marxist," in The New Statesman, Vol. 91, No. 2351, April 9, 1976, p. 476.
[In the following review of Vinegar Puss, Theroux calls Perelman "a shaping force of comedy " and offers the book high praise.]
It is amazing, not to say criminal, that these greedy islands, the gula archipelago so to speak, feast so mightily on old Marx Brothers films without even a nod to the chef. A little research on my part has revealed that none of S. J. Perelman's 18 previous books is in print in Britain, though there is a rumour that Crazy Like a Fox is circulating here in an American paperback. So much for his 50 years of conscientiously manufacturing laughing gas, and in this sense he bears some resemblance to his opposite number in Britain, 'Beachcomber'—indeed, everything that Richard Ingrams wrote in the preface to his superb collection The Best of Beachcomber applies to Perelman in America. In their respective countries, each man has been a shaping force of comedy, and every joke, wise-crack or gag originating in America is deeply indebted to the man who wrote, 'I've got Bright's disease, and he has mine'.
In High School I wrapped a copy of The Song of Hiawatha around The Road to Miltown and sat happily for hours, only occasionally betraying my true occupation by bursting out laughing. The teacher accused me of a lack of reverence,...
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SOURCE: "No Buff for the Briefalo," in The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1977, p. 9.
[In the following review of Eastward Ha!, Theroux examines some of the objects of Perelman's travel satire and calls the humorist "incomparable."]
There are at least two distinct types of laughter that the writing of S. J. Perelman produces in the reader, the Honk and the Yurble. Of these, the Honk is the more frequent. It might be the effect of a line of dialogue ("He opened a vein in his bath." "I never knew baths had veins.") or one of his intricately bizarre openings ("Every so often, when business slackens up in the bowling alley and the other pin boys are hunched over their game of bezique, I like to exchange my sweatshirt for a crisp white surgical tunic, polish up my optical mirror, and examine the corset advertisements in The New York Herald Tribune. . . .") or one of his all-purpose endings ("We bashed in his conk and left him to the vultures."). The Yurble is caused by Perelman's linguistic cobbling, as for example when "a panoply of porn" becomes "a pornoply" or he asserts "I hold no buff for the briefalo" or he gathers a cast that includes Gonifson, Hornbostel and Groin, and the atmosphere begins to resemble that of Nighttown with Leopold Bloom cruising through its surreal precincts.
In a sense, the humorist is like the man who hijacks a jumbo jet and its 300...
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SOURCE: "Separating the Chypre from the Ghosts," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXV, No. 5, April 6, 1978, pp. 10-12.
[In the following review of Eastward Ha!, Wood recounts Perelman's skill at pun and wordplay and offers many examples of his wit.]
"If one laughs at a joke really heartily," Freud remarks rather earnestly in his work on that subject, "one is not in precisely the best mood for investigating its technique." Freud is perfectly right, of course, but his tone should not mislead us. He has obviously been laughing heartily himself at his own most recent example, and I picture him as flinging his pen down, wiping his eyes, and all but falling off his chair. The specimen which seems to have started this thinly disguised unscholarly mirth concerns two East European Jews who meet near the bathhouse. The first one says, "Have you taken a bath?" and the other one replies, "What, is there one missing?"
One might conclude from this that Freud's taste in jokes was not sophisticated. But I prefer to conclude that Freud knew a terrible joke when he saw one and laughed heartily all the same. Good jokes defy analysis, even Freud's; and bad jokes don't need analysis, Freud's or anyone else's. But truly terrible jokes have a certain eloquent transparency. They want desperately to be jokes, they signify a will to make humor sprout on the most barren ground, and we...
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SOURCE: "Perelman Power," in The Listener, Vol. 100, July 20, 1978, p. 94.
[In the following review of The Most of S. J. Perelman and Eastward Ha!, Fantoni writes approvingly of Perelman's humorous use of language.]
Would anyone mind if I take the weight off my dogs for a minute or two, flop down on the chaise-longue and give a brief account of how I first clapped eyes on the printed word of Sid Perelman? It happened this wise. While I was still no taller than a mongoose with backache I enrolled for a course in painting at a South London établissement set up for that kind of thing and went about in a beret, my fragile chin covered by a beard with less hair than a moth-eaten coconut, and only answered to the name Paul Gauguin.
Part of the course was given over to the study of technical drawing. The idea behind this addition to the curriculum was not so much to teach any budding Le Corbusier which end of the pencil to use, but a masochistical whim of the principal to curb the fire in the loins of his paint-crazy élèves. You don't have to take my word for it but the class was a flop. Ask anyone.
Even the tutor found something else to while away the hours with. His passions were jazz and American humour. And so it happened that during one particularly long and sleepy afternoon, while wandering from my drawing-board, I stumbled upon a book...
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SOURCE: "Inimitable Perelman," in The Saturday Review (New York), Vol. 8, No. 7, July, 1981, p. 68.
[In the following review of The Last Laugh, Brickman observes of Perelman, "his genius defies criticism."]
The first time I met S. J. Perelman, the conversation turned to contemporary written humor, which he observed was a craft as obsolete and thankless as the manufacture of whalebone corset-stays. The name of a writer came up, a woman who had gleaned brilliant notices for a collection of rather ordinary pieces. I was searching for the precise phrase to characterize what I felt was the pallid quality of the lady's prose when Perelman leaned over and whispered, "milchedig." I felt at that moment a rush previously experienced only while watching Jerry West sink one from the outside, an elation, a momentary identification with—and admiration for—risk, accuracy, and grace.
The lady's style was, inarguably, dairy: light, bland, reminiscent of a cottage cheese blintz; it lacked the fleischig or meaty weightiness that sticks to the rib being tickled. Furthermore, the woman herself was in fact pasty, pie-faced, unsanguine. But Perelman said it all in one word, a critique both sympathetic and devastating. Sympathetic because I felt no real malice from him; the Yiddishism conveyed an impersonal, benign evaluation, and the effect was as though he had beaned...
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SOURCE: "Farewell, Vinegar Puss," in National Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 23, November 27, 1981, p. 1427.
[In the following review of The Last Laugh, Teachout finds Perelman's collection lacking the energy and balance of some of his earlier works.]
S. J. Perelman's new, posthumous collection—titled, with a pleasantly black flourish, The Last Laugh—is chiefly made up of pieces Perelman wrote for The New Yorker during the last five years of his life, padded out with four "fragments" from an unfinished autobiography that was to have been called The Hindsight Saga. These chapters (which deal with the Marx Brothers, Nathanael West, Dorothy Parker, and the writing of three screenplays) are brief, comparatively slight reminiscences which sound like typical Perelman essays written with a firmer-than-usual grasp on reality; they suggest that a completed Perelman memoir, whatever its other virtues, would probably have supplied little insight into its author's private life and concerns.
The New Yorker pieces, on the other hand, are quite revealing in an altogether unexpected way, for apart from occasional flashes they are not especially funny. Perelman continues to go through all the familiar motions, but something important is missing. "The only thing that matters," he once said, "is the end product, which must have brio." It is the conspicuous...
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SOURCE: "S. J. Perelman: A Basket of Grovels," in Essays in Disguise, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 47-54.
[In the following review of The Last Laugh, originally published in 1981, Sheed examines the ingredients of Perelman's humor, but remarks that this volume lach some of the vigor of Perelman's earlier work.]
Cyril Connolly once observed that even P. G. Wodehouse might have profited from being told which of his books was better than which. But nobody wants to review a humorist. Such notices as the funnymen get are generally either facetious, because the reviewer dreads seeming pompous, or vaguely eulogistic: "Another whatnot by the inimitable . . . need one say more?"
Whether criticism ever really helps anybody, it can, by its sheer mass, make a writer seem impressive, like stuffing in a dress shirt. So it is sobering to realize that a writer of the late S. J. Perelman's eminence probably went through life without any serious criticism at all, unless I've missed something in German.
Perhaps it just can't be done. Humor may simply be the Great Unexplainable—to be judged precisely for its quotient of unexplainability. A bad joke can be taken apart and put together again like a watch, until you learn the trick and can open your own watch factory. But the parts of a good joke tell you nothing. Take Perelman. "Ever since the days of Buffon the naturalist," he...
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SOURCE: "The First Laugh," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 17, November 8, 1984, pp. 37-8.
[In the following review, Crowther surveys the stories of That Old Gang O' Mine: The Early and Essential S. J. Perelman.]
S. J. Perelman in his time moved more book reviewers to confess incontinence than any other author in the West. While not myself finding this appropriate as a measuring stick, I don't mean to sneer. Indeed, I see now why Antony wanted to bury Caesar, but not to praise him. The task is awesome for reasons neatly captured by a friend of mine who said, when it looked as if I might actually meet the man, "Gee, not only does he know S. J. Perelman—he is S. J. Perelman."
Just so, That Old Gang O'Mine is one book that won't be heretically compared to Perelman: it is Perelman. The book includes about a third of his postgraduate output between 1926 and 1931, both cartoons and writing, before he began publishing in The New Yorker, but there's nothing quaint or dusty about it. It may well be Perelman in embryo, but that's just the point: we get to see what the wild overgrowth of his youthful imagination looked like before he took up topiary work.
I once asked him if his parents thought he was funny, and he answered by saying that as a boy he'd come across a caption in a book of photographs—"The Herring Fleet at...
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SOURCE: "Themes and Techniques," in S. J. Perelman: A Critical Study, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 175-91
[In the following essay, Gale studies Perelman's subject matter and comic style.]
Take one part American humor tradition, sprinkle in elements from the Yiddish theater, and blend these ingredients thoroughly in a piping hot comic genius' mind, and the result is S. J. Perelman's style. Not surprisingly, that style is unique and recognizable. As Ogden Nash, one of Perelman's collaborators, says in a review of Chicken Inspector No. 23, "Perelman's style is so uniquely his own that his readers in The New Yorker, which long ago established the peekaboo custom of printing the contributor's name at the tail of the article . . . need only glance at the first paragraph to identify its author."1
What are the components of this style that combine to make the product so easily identifiable? Rather than devoting a long chapter to an examination of Perelman's style, I have chosen throughout this study to deal with various stylistic components as they occur in his individual pieces. . . . In part this is because, as often as not, how this writer says something is both more interesting and more important than what he is saying. In part, too, because these stylistic elements are so integral to his work, they make much more sense when examined within that context, as...
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Gale, Steven H., ed. S. J. Perelman: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992, 306 p.
Includes three interviews, along with a selection of anthology introductions, reviews, and articles on Perelman's writing.
Teicholz, Tom, ed. Conversations with S. J. Perelman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, 139 p.
Contains a broad sampling of interviews with Perelman and essays on his work.
Additional coverage of Perelman's life and career is contained in the collowing sources published by The Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 18; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 15, 23, 44, 49; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 11, 44; Discovering Authors: Dramatists Module; and Major 20th-century Writers.
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