There is sadness in the title of S. J. (Sidney Joseph) Perelman’s The Last Laugh: it is the last in a long series of books that have brought amusement and laughter to millions of readers since the publication in 1929 of his group of burlesques, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge. Perelman died in 1979.
The Last Laugh contains seventeen pieces (Perelman called them feuilletons) first published in The New Yorker, in which a considerable part of Perelman’s writing first appeared during a span of approximately fifty years. Published for the first time and included as Part II of The Last Laugh are four chapters from Perelman’s unfinished autobiography, The Hindsight Saga, chapters which leave the reader wishing that death had delayed for a while the final cut-off of the flow of Perelman’s reminiscences.
Attempts have been made to describe the contents of a typical Perelman piece or story or article or whatever it may be called. Any attempt can give only a hazy idea or partial picture. Many begin with or contain in the early paragraphs a quotation from a newspaper, often The New York Times or the London Times. The quotation may be about a person, an odd happening, a current fad, or anything else that has struck Perelman as humorous or capable of being treated humorously. As his mind begins to fiddle with the possibilities offered, Perelman may develop a playlet with characters suggested by the quotation. In The Last Laugh this is done with “Zwei Herzen in die Drygoods Schlock,” developed from reports on recent activities of two Hollywood dress designers, one female, one male. Diane von Furstenberg becomes Charisma von Ausgespielt, “a breathtakingly beautiful” young woman, and Ron Talsky is Ricky Tikitavsky, “a divinely handsome” young man who literally comes out of the closet, Charisma’s closet, and talks with her about her plans to publish a book, She Spins to Conquer.
Perelman’s use of the dramatic form may be briefer, as in “As I Was Going to St. Ives, I Met a Man with Seventeen Wives,” which opens with a recollection of the Parody Club in Manhattan on the occasion of its golden anniversary. An old skit of comedian Jimmy Durante’s about a man with twelve children comes back to Perelman’s mind as he reads in the Times of a 117-year-old Malaysian who had married and divorced seventeen wives and was then arrested for living out of wedlock with a forty-year-old woman. Perelman mulls this over and constructs a scene in the conservatory of Mucho Dinero, the Newport mansion of Bonanza and Wolfram Frontispiece. Their daughter Wheatena has returned from India with an ancient dhoti-clad man and a “swarm of gaily plumaged women of varying age and hue in saris.” When the curtain falls, the old man, Dass Ist Kein Kint, and Frontispiece have just begun a discussion involving Dass Ist’s intentions toward Wheatena.
Except for the playlet “Zwei Herzen,” all of the Perelman pieces in The Last Laugh are narrated in the first person, and the narrator is usually Perelman himself, though he briefly pretends to be the author Israel Zangwill on one occasion and becomes Jud Kluckhorn in “One Order of Blintzes, and Hold the Flimflam.”
Coming near the end of the humorist’s life, the pieces in The Last Laugh contain many recollections of people and events from earlier years. These usually combine apparent facts with varying degrees or amounts of fictional invention or elaboration. A serious-minded biographer may some day try to separate the truth from the fiction, but in “And Then the Whining Schoolboy, with His Satchel” one cares little whether or not young Sid Perelman once met his sophomore English teacher at Gibson’s for “a nice cup of tea and a chat” and endured a grilling on the origins of an autobiographical theme he had written. The indulgent reader, perhaps remembering his or her own adolescent fantasizing, is simply amused at the extent to which Perelman pilfered from Rudyard Kipling, Zane Grey, Harold Bell Wright, and Jack London for the “facts” of his fifteen-year-old life.
Following the success of Dawn...
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