S. J. Perelman Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 9) - Essay

Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) 1904–

Perelman is an American humorist whose work parodies American characters and culture. In addition to books and essays, he has written several Hollywood screenplays—notably the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business and the Academy Award-winning Around the World in Eighty Days. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

To most of the self-confessed hacks who spent years writing shabby screenplays, Hollywood was a nightmare to be escaped from as soon or as frequently as possible…. Another response to the Hollywood experience was that of S. J. Perelman and his close friend and brother-in-law, Nathanael West. These writers found in the show business milieu both an ideal metaphor for American culture in general and a set of rhetorical and structural techniques suitable to their own fictional interests. Also it was the films of the Marx Brothers that both Perelman and West most curiously approached in their fiction. The object of Marx Brothers satire is the medium the brothers employ—show business itself, and often show business in its most preposterous, because most untrue-to-life, manifestation—the Hollywood movie. In certain ways this strategy is also employed by Perelman and West….

It is tempting to speculate that though Perelman was one of the writers of Monkey Business, the first Marx Brothers film that was not a remake of a stage play, it was the Marxes who helped mold Perelman rather than the opposite. (p. 660)

In the illogic of the Marx Brothers films, there is a constant fluctuation between the conversion of routine situations (like lighting cigars) into extended rituals and—what is more frequent—the conversion of pompous productions (like operas and society dinners) into back-alley capers. The lowly is exalted; the lofty is trivialized. Unlike the comedies of Chaplin, for example, or Laurel and Hardy, the films of the Marx Brothers are little concerned with domestic or political satire. Their satirical objects are the theatrical productions of society. The pomposities they demolish are the creations of people unable to conceive of their lives other than as roles in formulaic show business productions…. Except when such roles are taken by the brothers themselves, the performers assume with absolute vacuous seriousness the behavior of movie stereotypes. They become unintentional caricatures of caricatures. In the Marx Brothers films, then, the show biz world is the world; the mask is the face; Hollywood is reality.

The same is essentially the case in many of S. J. Perelman's stories—not simply the large number which deal explicitly with Hollywood, but also those concerned with such demimondes as fashion and clothing (a Perelman obsession), medicine, publishing, travel, advertising, and even farming. Where Perelman fundamentally differs from the Marx Brothers is that he introduces to the show biz setting not a group of irreverent and destructive eccentrics, but a naïve worshipper of the fraudulent scene. Usually nameless, the Perelman protagonist craves success, but in his gullibility invariably is defeated by the conscienceless frauds who rule whatever papier-mâché empire it is that he seeks to invade.

The Marx Brothers always win. Their brashness makes them invulnerable to fraud. The Perelman protagonist, though sometimes bemused and jaded by hypocrisy, is helplessly vulnerable. His jokes and puns are most often at his own expense. He is the schlemiel temporarily seduced by impressarios with such names as Harry Hubris, Stanley Merlin, and Tony Morningoff, or bright-eyed sexpots like Elaine Strangeways, Xanthia Mothersill, and Bitsy von Auchincloss.

The Perelman hero's sole defense is language—a unique composite of irrelevant erudition and show-biz badinage. (Perelman's style, incidentally, obviously derives from the basic form of American Jewish monologue humor, the shpritz …). Perelman's hyperbolic rhetoric, an absurd extension of the linguistic exaggeration common to the performers who entrap the hero, is his only way of surviving. (pp. 660-61)

Still Perelman's language entraps him as well. Like the actions and thoughts it conveys, it calls attention to its own falsity….

Unlike the Marx Brothers, the Perelman persona never knows he is playing a role. (p. 662)

Like Nathanael West's feeble protagonists … Perelman's narrators are compelled to be victims. They are eminently seducible by power and glamor, but they fall short in what both writers seem to judge the only effective weapon in the Hollywood situation—that is, brutality. Now brutality is what Groucho Marx possesses in abundance (as, in their pixieish ways, do Chico and Harpo). All of Groucho's roles show him as shrewd, unsympathetic, reveling in his own frauds, and cruel. He is tolerable because he is clever and funny, while his victims are fools; but he is a man without conscience. In Perelman's stories, the Groucho-like figures are leaders of the establishment, the movie moguls and clothing store entrepreneurs whose bravado and unscrupulousness are at the service of fakery. It is to the point, I think, that S. J. Perelman despised the Marx Brothers and took little pleasure in writing for them. (pp. 662-63)

In story after story, the Perelman protagonist finds Marx Brothers monkeyshines intolerable—intolerable because irresponsible. But his rages and retaliations are futile. (p. 663)

Perelman's perspective is invariably that of the victim. In many of Perelman's "scenarios"—those playlets within narratives that he has been writing for half a century—the comedy revolves around role reversal; that is, the character who is conventionally in a servile position assumes dictatorial control. (pp. 663-64)

Perelman has written hundreds of short stories, nearly all variants on the same subject: the hyper-literary naïve who becomes entrapped into actual or quasi-show business situations dominated by manic tyrants. The prototype of his settings is generally Hollywood. His descriptions of Hollywood types and dwellings, resembling those of West in the first chapter of The Day of the Locust, are so abundant in his fictions as to seem obsessive. They repeat with increasing disgust and detail Perelman's first published description of the Hollywood scene….

Like West, Perelman relates external confusion and hypocrisy to the psyche of the movie people, who can live only by assuming bizarre roles, which are constantly being replaced by other bizarre roles. Surely it is appropriate that it was Perelman who devised the basic plot of Monkey Business, in which the Marx Brothers, as stowaways on an ocean liner, evade capture through constantly changing props and costumes. When Groucho puts on the captain's hat, he is the captain. (p. 665)

I think that the essential affinity between the Marx Brothers films and Perelman's preoccupation with stylistic incoherence is in the matter of language. Marx Brothers dialogue doesn't make sense. Part of their comedy is their verbal caricaturing of a culturally nonsensical society. Why should words convey reality when nothing else does? In the Marx films, as in Perelman's stories, everyone is costumed. Like the stooge figures in the Marx films, the Perelman personae sustain illusions that reality conforms to plots (often movie plots), that such matters as purchasing a house or proposing marriage can be managed with a fair degree of verbal accuracy. The Marx Brothers and the Perelman "leeches" reject such an assumption. The demolition of language is the ultimate significance of Perelman's own style—itself the most extreme cultural melange of his fiction. In its way, it is as bizarre as a Hollywood lot in its shiftings from the literary pretentious to Yiddish slang to advertising and show business argot. The pathetic Perelman narrator, unlike Groucho, tries to give a verbal order to his befuddling and maddening experiences, but the only language available is that of assorted artificial cultures. In such societies as Perelman depicts there is no such thing as a non-artificial culture, and no one is more immersed—because more observant and more obsessed—than the Perelman narrator. (pp. 665-66)

Perelman's comic victims are in a sense "cheated," but they are cheated of nothing more than illusion; to them distinction and pretense seem quite sufficient goals. (p. 672)

J. A. Ward, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1976, by J. A. Ward), Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer, 1976.

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 passengers by threatening the pilot with a 10-cent water pistol. The arsenal is simple—technique matters, manner is everything, and fury helps. Mr. Perelman is good on the grotesque, because he is great at his tetchiest and best when he is angry. A movie such as "I Loved You Wednesday" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a magazine like House and Garden, the book "Oh, Doctor! My Feet!" by Dr. Dudley J. Morton, or practically any inedible sandwich is enough to set him off. But he is never more furiously comic as when dealing with a specific geographical location, whether it is a house in eastern Pennsylvania (about which he wrote an entire book, "Acres and Pains") or a back street in Kowloon….

"From bar mitzvah on," Mr. Perelman writes at the start of "Eastward Ha!", "I had longed to qualify as a Jewish Robert Louis Stevenson." It is one of Mr. Perelman's more modest claims, but after reading "Unshorn Locks and Bogus Bagels," an account of his stay in Israel, one tends to think that he is in grave danger of being read out of the tribe for his having brought such ill tidings to Zion. "What magic, what ingenuity and manpower it had taken to recreate Grossinger's, the Miami Fountainebleau and the Concord Hotel on a barren strand in the Near East!" In Tel Aviv he came across a brand of perfume called Chutzpah. He describes this as a breakthrough even Dr. Chaim Weizmann ("himself a chemist") would have applauded: "Not a soul in history, from Helen of Troy to Helena Rubinstein, had ever thought of pure, unadulterated gall as a cosmetic." He notes in passing that the best hotel in Jerusalem—if not in the whole country—is run "by a family of Baptists." But Perelman is nothing if not fair-minded, and I cannot think of anyone better equipped to describe the troglodyte face of Yassir Arafat—indeed, I believe he has already done so, with devastating results.

Typically, because he hated the place so thoroughly, the Israel piece is one of his funniest. Discomfort, pomposity, bad service, importuning natives, hideous weather—anything vile makes Mr. Perelman's prose sing with mockery. Years ago, miffed in this present book's companion volume, "Westward Ha!" he was forced to leave "enough baksheesh in Santa Sophia to gild the transept"; and who but Perelman would have titled a comedy "The Rising Gorge"? In his disgust resides his eloquence. His experience of the Soviet Union in "The Millennium, and What They Can Do With It" is pure acid. Nothing went right, yet the result is not a tantrum but a glorious backhander in which everything he saw from Moscow to Yalta is dismissed. "Yalta contains sanitariums that ignite more hypochondria in the onlooker than the Magic Mountain … that Chekhov managed to glean any literary nuggets from Yalta is merely added proof of his stature." In Iran, which is … one of the earth's nightmares of unspeakable modernity and uncompromising barbarism, Mr. Perelman lets fly, but always with grace: "the demented thoroughfares" in Teheran are terrifying, "as a result, there are only two kinds of pedestrians … the quick and the dead."

It is only when Mr. Perelman is describing a dear friend or a well-loved place that his voice drops and one hears his so-rarely-used tone of gratitude or good will. In Penang, the colonial buildings and warehouses and dockside life "typified for me the magic of Kipling's Far East." It sounds like sarcasm; one waits for his swift deflation, but none comes—it is, almost incredibly, nostalgia. This is unexpected, but perhaps not all that odd, for like the references to Daddy Browning and Peaches, Joshua Slocum, Tazio Nuvolari, the Three Stooges, the reminiscences of Rhode Island and Hollywood, the exact price of brooms in Tzmir and words like "mazuma," "chicken-flicker" and "simoleon," there is room in Perelman's prose style for nearly everything. It is not so strange that in her introduction to a Perelman collection some years ago, Parker was at a loss for words. Perelman is incomparable.

Paul Theroux, "No Buff for the Briefalo," in New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 2, 1977, p. 9.

In pebble glasses and high choler, S. J. Perelman, that word-besotted humorist, has again [in Eastward Ha!] set out to traduce the globe. Perhaps the countries of the world deserve the lumps they take at Perelman's practiced hand—they so rarely live up to the traveler's feverish imagination. In his earlier Westward Ha! Perelman went, well, west; now he heads in the opposite direction….

One can hear his host of readers asking, "Is Eastward Ha! vintage Perelman?" The real question is whether they will be satisfied with a belly laugh every few pages or so and a lot of chuckles in between or whether they will be ingrates. For me, Perelman's names alone—Nauseatrauma for the manager of the Jakarta Stilton, Phee Line Miaow for a Siamese room boy, the Star & Kreplach for a Scottish pub—are worth the price. (p. 35)

Ralph Tyler, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), October 15, 1977.

Clearly the most irascible traveler since Smollett, in [Eastward Ha!] Perelman lets fly with somewhat diminished zest at the unfortunate denizens of Edinburgh, Paris, Moscow, Tel Aviv and Points East. The veins of other travelers—at least at the beginning of their journeys—course with blood: only Perelman boasts ichor. If the State Department doesn't already have an official Ill-Will Ambassador, they should create the post just for him….

It would be pleasant to report that Eastward Ha! is as fine a performance on the Perelman as its predecessor Westward Ha! but such, alas, is not the case. Despite such splendid inventions as the musician who "played some instrument, I think the hullabaloo, in a rock group calling themselves The Damp Squibs," the language is less outrageously baroque; some clichés, like "scarcer than hen's teeth" go unsavaged; phony words like "dichotomy" are used in all seriousness, and our most erudite humorist even forgets for the nonce that humidity, no matter how oppressive, is still measured in percentages, not degrees. Worst of all, the book boasts a mere two illustrations by the incomparable Al Hirschfeld, royal iconographer to Perelman as Holbein was to Henry VIII.

Perelman addicts will be somewhat disappointed, I think.

Richard Freedman, "Perils of Perelman," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 30, 1977, p. E7.