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.