S. J. Perelman Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman 1904–1979

American humorist, dramatist, and scriptwriter.

A contributor to The New Yorker for almost fifty years, Perelman is one of America's best-loved humorists. Perelman began his career writing whimsical sketches and remained loyal to the sketch form throughout his lifetime. Even in his longer works, plot and character are less important than the interwoven scenarios that point up human silliness and pretension. Admiring critics have often expressed regret that Perelman never abandoned this approach to write a full-length satire.

In addition to his brilliant occasional pieces on almost every aspect of contemporary society, Perelman wrote several Hollywood screenplays—most notably Monkey Business and Around the World in Eighty Days. He was awarded a special National Book Award in 1978 for his contribution to American letters.

A recent addition to the Perelman canon is the posthumous The Last Laugh, which most Perelman admirers read with affection.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 15 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, 89-92 [obituary].)

The Saturday Review Of Literature

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Last year, entirely on his own, Perelman perpetrated "Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge," a fine, mad book…. And now he has produced from his lunatic depths a second and better volume, "Parlor, Bedlam and Bath."…

The book is good, though it falls occasionally into a bog. Essentially it is like nothing else that we know, in spite of passages and attitudes that remind us of McEvoy, Sullivan, Stewart, Lardner, Benchley, Groucho Marx, and Joe Cook. Anyone to whom this list is a rollcall of the well-beloved will be thoroughly delighted with Perelman. He is never really derivative, though it is plain to see where he went to school. His humor is completely up-to-the-minute: allusive, intelligent, urban—and above all, mad. But that is the way we take it these days, and like it. A generation from now it will be largely indecipherable and thoroughly inane, but here and now it's grand good stuff. (p. 1195)

The chapter headings are pure gold, of an indescribable waggishness. Throughout, there is a delightful dwelling on the lighter aspects of drinking and of Prohibition. Some of the pages might, indeed, have come from the Bartender's Guide, and the descriptions of various speakeasies are magnificent.

Sympathetic souls—and there are many of them—will have a better summer for Perelman's high spirited nonsense. (p. 1196)

"The New Books: 'Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1930 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VI, No. 51, July 12, 1930, pp. 1195-96.

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

The strange part is, Perelman refers to his deeds as "prose." But Perelman's "prose" was never a simple thing, like mother love, or even like other prose. It is highly complex, deviously organized—the work of some master brain being undoubtedly behind it—and is more like jiu-jitsu than any prose most of us have ever seen.

There is, for instance, that sudden materializing of figures of speech, calculated to throw the bystander, or reader, over the head of the sentence and press a little nerve at the back of his ear….

By Perelman's evil plot every too-familiar name of this world is going to get caught in an insidious tangle from which it is doubtful, now, that any will ever become extricated….

There are those who think that Perelman no longer slays with the old abandon. They declare that some of that fine early madness is missing, and that one day the Fox may be caught. These are optimists. There is both old and new evidence in the forty-eight pieces here collected—and though Perelman may not scatter the red herrings to which we have become accustomed, something mighty like a herring, and mighty frisky, goes scampering across all 269 pages…. Or perhaps it is not a red herring but that which, or whom, Perelman calls "Pandemonium, the upstairs girl."

Eudora Welty, "Strictly Perelman," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1944 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1944, p. 6.

Horace Sutton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a humorist, Perelman is a pixie. He walks you down the garden path of simple declarative sentences, then smacks you with a load of double-jointed linguistics. He hits you on the shin with syntax, and when you double over, he steps in to clout you over the head with a hidden hieroglyphic. If you are a fan dating back to "Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge," you'll find ["Westward, Ha!"], in these days of global consciousness, gives Perelman nothing less than a whole world to play with. If, on the other hand, you're new on the beat, let me warn you that the man sneaks up on you like four martinis. It all looks so pleasant and amiable, and all of sudden there you are rolling on the floor.

Horace Sutton, "Durante of Discourse," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1948 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 32, August 7, 1948, p. 17.

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perelman prose at its pure best, as everybody knows, is highly concentrated stuff. Every line and word count; it is as deadly accurate, as carefully organized and as impressionistic as high comedy or poetry. When this special stuff is given us in its natural form—the set piece—it is wonderful. But when it's made to cover a world journey [as it is in "Westward Ha!: Around the World in 80 Cliches"] it loses its charms with its shape. When writing that's really a high comic performance has to serve for a long sustained account of a trip, taking us over actual hill and dale and following true-life narratives and the known maps, not to mention keeping two strange characters—Perelman and [illustrator Al Hirschfeld]—alive and in recognizable human guise before us, then the demand on the prose is not a fair one….

We ought not to look for anything unmitigated in this day and time, they tell us—especially joy. But, it would have been nice to have our Perelman straight, not constricted by a job to fulfill.

Eudora Welty, "High Jinks Travelogue," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1948, p. 5.

Dorothy Parker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Humor to me, Heaven help me, takes in many things. There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard of your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it. There must be some lagniappe in the fact that the humorist has read something written before 1918. There must be, in short, S. J. Perelman.

Mr. Perelman stands alone in this day of humorists. Mr. Perelman—there he is. Robert Benchley, who was probably nearest to Perelman, and Ring Lardner, who was nearest to nobody, are gone, and so Mr. Perelman stands by himself. Lonely he may be—but there he is….

His latest book, "The Road to Miltown, or Under the Spreading Atrophy," seems to me by far his best; but that is what everybody says about a Perelman latest book. The only snide thing I can find to say about this one—and I had to strain to dig that up—is that I find the subtitle unnecessary, and in no way up to the title proper. I have been told often, and I know and have known that one should not read through at a sitting a book of short pieces. Well, it turns out that those who told me were fools and so was I, for you can go right through "The Road to Miltown." There is in this compilation a variety that knocks you dizzy.

Mr. Perelman has bounded over...

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Steve Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading S. J. Perelman's latest book "The Road to Miltown," the professional humorist is apt to experience sensations similar to those known to pianists who listen to an Art Tatum recording. He feels, in other words, like giving up.

Perelman is simply too good. The suspicion arises that there is no real Perelman any more, but that some diabolically ingenious technician has succeeded in equipping a Univac machine with a complete supply of the world's literary clichés, a vocabulary ranging from Chaucer to Madison Avenuese, a fund of what is commonly regarded as the British gift for understatement, counterbalanced by consummate mastery of what is commonly regarded as the American gift for overstatement, a jolt of Groucho Marxish lunacy … and the perception of a philosopher, and that this fantastic device simply keeps Simon & Schuster supplied with an endless stack of funny essays, constructed along certain predictable but always eminently successful lines.

The machine never falters. Year after year it hews to the formula. The writing style is basically tongue-in-cheek-turn-of-the-century, studded with jewels of contemporary phraseology that consistently catch the reader by surprise. Color is added by profligate use of words that could be in no real human's vocabulary except that old British colonel the late C. Aubrey Smith always seemed to be playing.

The machine isolates a phenomenon of our culture (an intrinsically silly one, but few besides Perelman would perceive the silliness) and then extends it to the ultimate degree of absurdity. (p. 16)

Steve Allen, "Philosophic Lunacy," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 5, February 2, 1957, pp. 16-17.

Burling Lowrey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

S. J. Perelman is the most durable and, over the long haul, possibly the most brilliant of that familiar group of humorists whose wit fructified in the Twenties and Thirties and who found a spiritual home in the pages of The New Yorker. His new collection, "The Rising Gorge" (perhaps the most revealing of all Perelman book titles), substantiates the well-established opinion that the Master's forte is without question a biting, sardonic prose style, at times almost Dadaistic in its emphasis on the sound of words as an end in itself. Like Vladimir Nabokov, whom he most resembles in manner and technique, Perelman is at his best when creating sharp capsule sketches of human gargoyles….

All of...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most of the sketches in [The Rising Gorge] have appeared before, in The New Yorker…. [Mr. Perelman] 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, 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 opening paragraphs are usually brilliant bits of pastiche. But then he loses direction. He tries too hard for a laugh: witness the frenetic titles he favours, which tend to be as brassy as the things he is supposed to be mocking…. Perhaps Mr. Perelman is a comedian rather than a humorist—or, more particularly, a gagman, adept at producing comic scripts. They might be glorious material for some comic actor. Failing him, they do not come to life. Another way of putting this would be to say that the author is absent from most of the sketches, whereas Thurber is present, directly or indirectly, in Thurber sketches.

It is true that Mr. Perelman often exposes his narrator to ignominy and defeat, in the classic tradition of comedy. But the process seems mechanical, like Groucho Marx on the printed page. The deficiency is most apparent in several sketches facetiously entitled "Dr. Perelman, I Presume, Or Small-Bore in Africa". These seems to be based on an actual visit to Kenya. But the mixture of fantasy and authenticity is disturbing, especially when the real/pseudo Mr. Perelman discusses the Mau-Mau. One feels that the whole visit was a gag, in intention, and that Mr. Perelman is exposed as a small-bore humorist indeed, the victim of his own remarkable facility at producing wisecracks when humour of a deeper dimension is needed.

"Gagman Extraordinary," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3170, November 30, 1962, p. 941.

Melvin Maddocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

S. J. Perelman is one of those humorists—he prefers to think of himself as a writer of "the sportive essay"—who hits the reader on the after-beat. He catches up to you going away from the joke, innocently unsuspecting, with the cream pie of the jest already smeared across your face. He puts you into stitches by a kind of kint one, Perel two technique….

The long fuse Perelman strings to his jokes is quintessentially verbal. He uses syntax the way a silent comedian uses the double take. (A typical delayed-action sentence: "He departed ere we could grapple for the check.")

The Perelman style—its eminent reasonableness, its barely-mock dignity, its subtly staged collisions between gentility and slang—allows him to keep cover until the last possible moment. Round and round those half-crouching sentences spiral until the reader feels like a besieged straight man in a Marx Brothers movie.

What are [the "sportive essays" in "Chicken Inspector No. 23"] about? If, with a reviewer's version of Perelman tactics, we have delayed till now to answer, it is because content is the least of Perelman. He is not a real satirist. The most ordinary, even stereotyped targets will do; swimming-pool Hollywood, hard-sell Madison Avenue.

What sets him off is far less important than the fact that he and his zany sentences are spinning. He is not interested in suggesting that a particular part of the world is all crazy—that would be satire—but that all of the world is at least partly mad, which makes him a surrealist….

[He] survives, above all, because he deserves to. Old surrealists never die, they just hallucinate away—coming closer and closer to reporting all the time.

Melvin Maddocks, "The Cream Pie of the Jest," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1966 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), September 1, 1966, p. 11.

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What I predict now could really be put in the form of a nomination: that S. J. Perelman be declared a living national treasure. This would be a good time for it. He has a new book today ["Baby, It's Cold Inside"] and we need the treasure….

Mr. Perelman has always taken aim at the same target. His aim is perfect, but human folly of course is deathless. It just changes shape. (p. 1)

["Baby, It's Cold Inside"] has the brilliance we expect. If the insouciance of the early Perelman—"I had gone into a Corn Exchange bank to exchange some corn." "I have Bright's disease and he has mine"—is not as evident here, nobody could keep up that effervescence…. In its place is a mood...

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Richard Freedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perelman has every right to be a bit bushed by now, forty-one years and eighteen books after his debut, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, which crashed into public notice coincidentally with the stock market. Yet aside from the title, which he seems to have thought of in about five minutes while lying in a hammock, Baby, It's Cold Inside (remember that song?) shows the Bubba of Bucks County as alert to cliché, as pugnacious to pretense, as frenetic and fallible as ever….

The manic mixtures of levels of diction (a freshman sin, but Perelman's chief stylistic glory), the outrageous puns …, the poetic names (Charismé Ismay, President Butterfoss, Irene Nemesis), are as piquant as...

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Tom Wolfe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

S. J. Perelman, it turns out, left behind four chapters of an autobiography when he died in 1979. He planned to call it "The Hindsight Saga," a perelmaniacal spin off "The Forsythe Saga." These bits of memoir, published for the first time in "The Last Laugh," are the tailpiece to a collection of 17 of Perelman's comic sketches for The New Yorker. Even in its fragmentary state, "The Hindsight Saga" strikes me as the best thing Perelman ever wrote….

Perelman wrote steadily until the day he died at the age of 75, and from the beginning of his career to the end he was capable of being the funniest writer in America—over the quarter-horse distance of 1,500 words. Reading his little sketches, I grew...

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Henry Mitchell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perelman was never restrained but always reticent. You might think his posthumous book, The Last Laugh, would break new ground, especially since it includes a few sketches from his proposed but incomplete autobiography.

Here, the avid Perelman reader might think, we shall get down to the nitty-gritty of life. But the sketches of Nathanael West, his brother-in-law, and of Dorothy Parker, whom he knew for years and years, are curiously impersonal and might have been written (as far as emotional intensity is concerned) by any interviewer from a newspaper who had spent an afternoon with them.

This does not mean his last book is inferior to his other work, not at all. It is more...

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R. D. Rosen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Only] now, reading The Last Laugh, which appears a year and a half after Perelman's death, have I considered the real, concealed value of his work. Parents could do far worse than to leave The Most of S. J. Perelman lying around the house, because its author demonstrates that it is possible to be funny and write well at the same time, a lesson that is not to be taken lightly in an age when so much humor—whether in print, the movies, or on television—has segregated itself from the literary by its predictability and its graceless pandering to the easy guffaw…. Perelman's sentences, however ornamented or clogged with relative clauses, are as well tailored as were his Savile Row tweeds. His vocabulary...

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Wilfrid Sheed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

People who came to Perelman late commonly had difficulty understanding the zeal of earlier converts and, by chance, I could see why; I myself read his books in the wrong order and underwent the strange experience of being somewhat tired of him before I became a fan. A bit too mechanical, I thought of his later stuff.

To my mind almost all his best work is crammed into one volume—Crazy Like a Fox, first published in 1944 but spanning his oeuvre from 1931 to then. This was an awkward belief to hold during his later lifetime, because one didn't want to go about droning, "Don't read his latest." Yet it might have done his reputation a service, as it might many a slipped writer's, and it...

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Philip French

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[By the early 1930s Perelman] had found the mature style and the form (the five-page sketch) that he would never desert….

The style eventually proved somewhat inflexible, as the autobiographical material [in The Last Laugh] shows. He became incapable of dealing directly with his experience in writing. His travel pieces are almost entirely fiction: he moved around the world mainly on the tourist circuit, the journeys being as much a way of assuaging his chronic restlessness as of stirring his imagination…. The truth … is that Perelman couldn't abide chaos or discomfort; the calamities he could handle as a writer were imaginary ones, the comic mountains he dreamt up from serious molehills....

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