Comic essayist S.J. Perelman died thirty years ago this October 17, which anniversary raises an important question.
The answer is, No one, really, except for a few fusty English professors submitting articles to Studies in American Humor. In libraries, the due date stamps on his books have yawning gaps between them, with the most popular rarely checked out more than once a year. Perelman’s essays don’t appear in high school anthologies or in college course catalogs, and it’s a rare Student Activities Committee that will sponsor an all-night S.J. Perelman reading over a Simpsons marathon. Many of his twenty-one books are out of print. No on dresses up like him on Halloween.
Send that Who cares? back in time anxd a different and altogether more fanatical answer emerges. In the 1960s, Perelman was already the doyen of comic writing, a 1957 Oscar for his Around the World in 80 Days screenplay clocking in as his latest accolade. Anyone in America’s literary, theatrical, or film circles would have recognized his finely tailored suits and stooped shoulders, his ginger-colored moustache, his small silver spectacles (bought in Paris in 1927), and his melancholy blue eyes (one of which wandered). More importantly, most everyone in those circles would have read his writing. “His eyes,” wrote Ogden Nash is 1966, “peering through the sort of steel-rimmed spectacles we associate with kindly old horse-and-buggy doctors, rove continually over the foibles and fatuities of his era, and when they spot a particularly virulent boil or carbuncle, his lancet is ready and ruthless.”
Though Eudora Welty in fact called for Perelman to be designated a Living National Treasure in 1970, there are good reasons for his anonymity today. His short first person essays, published mostly in The New Yorker from the height of the Jazz Age in the late 1920s until the late 1970s, are rollercoaster rides through wild absurdity, recondite vocabulary, and layers upon layers of puns and allusions. For example,
I had a suit over my arm and was heading west down Eighth Street…when I ran smack into Vernon Equinox in front of the Waffle Shop. Fair weather or foul, Vernon can usually be found along there…scanning the bargain Jung in the corner bookshop or disparaging the fake African primitive masks at the stationery store. His gaunt, greenish white face, edged in the whiskers once characteristic of fisherfolk and stage Irishmen and now favored by the Existentialist poets, his dungarees flecked with paint, and his huaraches and massive turquoise rings clearly stamp Vernon as a practitioner of the arts, though which one is doubtful. The fact is, he favors them all impartially.
“Who Stole My Golden Metaphor?, 1956
That’s a lot of literary work for any reader, let alone those of us who didn’t incubate in a dictionary or grow up during the Jazz Age.
The better question, then, is Why care that Perelman died thirty years ago, or that he lived at all?
Perelman himself didn’t expect his writing to last long; in an interview he hoped that it would stay relevant for four or five years after publication. Comedy in general has a hard battle against obsolescence—will Jon Stewart be funny in 2039?—as tastes and talents change. But Perelman’s champions in the 1970s saw the beginnings of true longevity: his surreally madcap, unabashedly erudite, absolutely Perelmanesque essays gave American humor a new, complicated, intelligent voice. It was now possible to do brilliant parody in the guise of silly loop-de-loops, with diamond-like language full of meaning. His touch is most visible in Woody Allen, who extended Perelman’s persona to the inner life and relationships, but glimmers even now in the madcap, winkingly un-erudite, absolutely Colbertesque Stephen Colbert.
Not only is Perelman’s writing just under the surface of today’s kind of funny, the essays are a biography of nearly 80 years of American culture. All his life, Perelman absorbed everything he encountered—silent films to jazz to pulp detective novels to Depression-era women’s magazines to advertising copy for skirt steaks to insurance policies to ocean liner travel mores—and in the course of writing about it, preserved it at its highest, funniest pitch.
Reading and caring about Perelman’s work is like doing the jitterbug while making a soufflé. It requires a deft and difficult determination (and, yes, a dictionary), but the reward is this glittering, distinctly American writing. The effort goes more easily with an understanding of the cultures that shaped Perelman’s life and work, and so we start with a New England chicken farm.
Russian Jewish immigrants Joseph and Sophie Perelman moved from Brooklyn to Providence, Rhode Island, in late 1904. There, Joseph tried his hand and mostly failed at different jobs, the most memorable of which for young Perelman were dry goods shop owner and poultry farmer.
Their son, Sidney Joseph, born February 1, 1904, early on showed a knack for drawing, particularly cartoons, and a deep hatred for both chickens and the family’s penury. Later he tumbled headlong into reading, each weekend loading his knapsack with seven or eight library books, and returning them, all read, on Monday morning.
These books weren’t just Ivanhoe or Henry V, though he very likely read those, too. Perelman read every two-bit detective novel, trashy romance, and adventure yarn he could carry. At Providence Classical High School, he was learning Greek and Latin (he did not like his teachers, however: forty years after graduation, he drew horns and beards on a newspaper photograph of five female teachers and sent it to a childhood friend, with the caption, “A Jew Never Forgets”). Meanwhile, at home his parents spoke Yiddish and in town he absorbed the Providence version of the New England accent. And when he was a teenager, Perelman fell in love at once with silent films.
On a slumberous afternoon in the autumn of 1919, the shopkeepers along Weybosset Street in Providence, Rhode Island, were nonplussed by a mysterious blinding flash. Simultaneously, they heard a sound like a gigantic champagne cork being sucked out of a bottle, and their windows bulged inward as though Dario Resta’s Peugeot had passed, traveling at incalculable speed… The first report [was] that anarchists had blown the cupola off the state capitol [but] a bystander appeared with a green baize bag dropped by the fugitive, establishing him as a sophomore at Classical High School. Among its contents were a copy of Caesar’s Gallic commentaries, a half-eaten jelly sandwich, and a newspaper advertisement announcing the premiere that afternoon at the Victory of Cecil B. DeMille’s newest epic, Male and Female.
“When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Films,” 1952
In the 1950s, Perelman revisited the books, silent movies, and characters he’d adored in his teenage years—Erich von Stroheim, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Theda Bara, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—in a series for The New Yorker called Cloudland Revisited. The essays were cock-eyed exaggerations of his youthful ardor, but the movies and books had a flamboyant ridiculousness that influenced Perelman’s writing. The contrast between life in Providence, what he called “lower-middle class bourgeois,” and the glamour on the screen reappeared in the comic self he developed: the smart rube bumbling toward dubious sophistication.
The Perelmans weren’t religious Jews, his father identifying more strongly as a Socialist, and Perelman didn’t seem to experience his Jewishness as a distinct part of his growing up, though Yiddish phrases daisy chain nearly every essay he ever wrote. The anti-Semitism at Brown University, however, made him an obvious second-class citizen, as Jews were not invited to join fraternities and intellectually conservative Protestant greybeards dominated the faculty. He was also a commuter student, working in a cigar shop after classes to help pay for his tuition, which placed him even further down the social ladder. His biographer, Dorothy Hermann, writes in her 1985 account of his life that Perelman was a quiet, indifferent student, until he met Nathaniel Weinstein, nicknamed Pep, his sophomore year.
Pep was a wild card: he’d faked a Tufts University transcript in order to enter Brown and graduated without his ruse being revealed. He wore dandy suits and carried a cane (imitating Percy Marks, a young Brown professor), pulled pranks and wrote amused screeds for the Brown Jug, one of the campus literary magazines.
Perelman and Pep became friends and Pep became the blueprint for the fine haberdashery and slightly absurd English gentleman persona Perelman explored during and after college (the sartorial taste lasted to the end of his life). When asked in a 1970 interview why one of their pranks involved stealing an “elephant folio of Hogarth” from the Brown library, he answered, “Decadent aestheticism.”
When he became editor of the Brown Jug, Perelman published his surreal, stylized cartoons and started writing his own polemics against hypocrisy on campus. One scathing editorial lambasted a rule that allowed students with a high enough grade point average to skip chapel. Furthermore, when the Brown fraternities came after him to join their groups once he’d become editor, he took great pleasure in rejecting them. This sense of outrage at hierarchy not based on merit appeared in his later writing, as he skewered pompous characters from the English gentry he liked to ape, to shopkeepers gone supercilious with the power of the till.
Perelman did not graduate from Brown, but only because he failed trigonometry four times. In 1925, he moved to Manhattan to make a go as a cartoonist for Judge magazine. The Jazz Age was in full swing. More than the hallowed flappers and Algonquin Round Table, Perelman was drawn to the style: urbane, exaggerated, wild. He often said in interviews that as a cartoonist he’d been influenced by John Held, Jr., whose drawings were part champagne, part sex—curvy light lines both elegant and lascivious.
Judge proved to be a bust, paying Perelman next to nothing and being of unsound editorial quality. Perelman’s captions, however, had gotten longer and longer the more he drew, and he decided to start writing essays instead. Like the Jazz Age, they sought to be ironically and suavely debauched, poking fun at cultural foibles while careening from pun to gag to surreal image, a twenty-turn rollercoaster ride in 1,000 words.
The Perelman persona that had begun at Brown took on greater definition at this time. In S.J. Perelman, his study Perelman in the context of American literature, Douglas Fowler describes it:
He has ever minor vice and defect except stupidity: he is vain (with little to be vain about), lecherous (although usually unsuccessful in his pursuit of the ladies), greedy, slothful, and a braggart. Only his vocabulary and perceptions really separate him from the grosser clowns and con-men… He is a schlemiel, but an aware schlemiel, never a passive victim… If Perelman’s persona should ever be written up for use in a movie, the part should be played by Don Knotts—with a thesaurus in his pocket.
Fowler, S.J. Perelman, 1983
But the control of his later work wasn’t present yet, resulting in a one uneven comic novel and a first collection of essays, neither of which made any money. In a sign of endearing jejuneness, Perelman remembered in a 1963 Paris Review interview that he was so excited the book was coming out he forgot to make sure his name was on the cover. Unless readers looked at the spine, he said, for all they knew Dawn Ginsberg’s Revenge was written by the publisher, Horace Liverwright.
It wasn’t until Perelman met Groucho Marx in 1928 that things began to take off for him professionally and creatively. The Marx Brothers, made up of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and for a time Zeppo, were a raucous radio and theater vaudeville act, probably the most anarchic troupe in the country, if not the world. Perelman sent Groucho a note after a theatrical performance of Animal Crackers he especially liked. They met, talked, and Groucho asked him to write some radio material. After Groucho read the finished jokes, he announced it would become the script of the Brothers’ next movie, Monkey Business.
Monkey Business marked Perelman’s Hollywood initiation, a place he came to loathe and write about for decades. Many writers sought work as script, or scenario, writers, not so much because the work was inspiring or the city of Los Angeles tempting or the people ennobling, but because it was the Depression and the work paid pretty well. Perelman’s vicious descriptions of Hollywood varied over the years, but one of the tartest might still apply: “A dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched.”
Working with the Marx Brothers was, he often said, a nightmare. Perelman and his co-writer Will Johnstone had no idea what they were doing and ended up writing a 118-page script loaded with technical camera terms they didn’t understand, just to make it sound smart. The first reading to the Brothers (plus assorted wives, relatives, studio executives, and afghan dogs) took Perelman 90 minutes to complete, after which Groucho proclaimed, in front of the mostly sleeping crowd, “Stinks.” And everyone left the room.
All was not lost. The Brothers hired three more writers to assist Perelman and Johnstone, and the resulting film was a smash hit. Perelman collaborated on one more film, Horse Feathers, released in 1932. “I did two films with them,” he said in 1970, “which in its way is perhaps my greatest distinction in life, because anybody who ever worked on any picture for the Marx Brothers said he would rather be chained to a galley oar and lashed at ten minute intervals…than ever work for these sons of bitches again.”
Critics and fans twinned Groucho and Perelman for the rest of both men’s lives, much to their mutual resentment, and their friendship was by turns cordial, loving, rancorous, and hateful. It is hard to tell who influenced whom: both were American Jews, and used that alienated- outsider trope to give their jokes heat; they both loved double entendres and unexpected turns of phrase; they both relied on a sense of the unpredictable; and they both died grumpy old men. They even looked a bit alike. The best way to distinguish them is by their genre: Groucho was an actor, with a big personality and broad humor; Perelman was a writer, modest and literary.
By this time Perelman was married to Pep’s younger sister, Lorraine Weinstein, though both brother and sister had changed their names, Pep to Nathanael West and Lorraine to Laura West. This anglicization mirrored Perelman’s own distance from his Jewishness in his work, as well as the general disinclination among Jews in the arts to claim their ethnicity. Perelman’s freelance career had gathered steam, and he started his long relationship with The New Yorker in 1931 with the essay “Peeper Fads and Fancies.” Money was tight despite the success, and he and Laura were drawn back to Hollywood many times. They worked as a writing team on a number of dreadful B movies, some never released, and lived in temporary rental after temporary rental. The first child, Adam, was born in 1936, and their second, Abby, in 1938.
Perelman’s life took on a measure of stability for the during much of the late 1930s and 1940s, though stability for him meant regular upheavals to move from Manhattan, where the family owned an apartment, to Los Angeles, then from Los Angeles to their newly bought eighty-three-acre home in Erwinna, a small town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and back to Manhattan (but a new apartment this time), or maybe a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, or a trip to Europe, and to Los Angeles again.
Several constants emerged. First was a ceaseless anxiety about money, though it is unclear if the Perelman’s were ever in true financial danger. Second was a widening circle of famous friends and acquaintances, from Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash to Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor. Third was Perelman’s many infidelities, some sexual affairs and some romantic friendships with women, to whom he wrote playful, ribald, longing letters. He gained a reputation as a Lothario for the rest of his life, though he did not write explicitly about his dalliances in his writing
For Perelman’s writing, if not his personal life, these were indeed boon years. In a rare Broadway triumph, he and Ogden Nash collaborated on a 1943 hit musical called One Touch of Venus starring Mary Martin. More importantly, in advertising and movie dialogue, language was full of folly to be lampooned. “When Mr. Perelman wrote the superbly hilarious pieces of the thirties and forties,” Eudora Welty wrote in 1970, “our misuse of the language was in its own vintage years.” In “Dey Gustibus Ain’t What De Used to Be,” Perelman crafted a parody of Glamour magazine’s breathless advice on how to redecorate a drab apartment. His single girl in the city ended up with a fishing net suspended from the ceiling, a boyfriend in the corner plastered with gold notary seals, and a tree.
Perelman assiduously kept his work light and comic, never using it as a means of personal expression or serious social commentary, even in the midst of tragedy. In 1940, Pep died in a car accident. Only one mention of Pep’s death survives in all of Perelman’s writing. He’d been asked to write a kind of eulogy for the Pep in Clipper magazine; in a letter he replied, “I haven’t any perspective about him, just a dull sense of unreality and shock which I am afraid will be a long while in disappearing.”
His work did shift slightly, though, as he began his travel writing. With his friend Al Hirshfield, the celebrated portraitist, he circled the globe on steamships, planes, and trains in 1947, in an age when travel was both dicey and romantic, spending much time in Southeast Asia. He wrote about the trip for Holiday magazine and published the essays in 1948 book under the title Westward Ha!
His travel is less antic than other pieces, with the small encounters sustained around a long narrative, though the each essay is familiarly short. In the beginning of Westward Ha! he describes an encounter with a map seller in Manhattan:
Even the veriest tyro knows that the first consideration of the experienced world traveler is a good set of maps…With an air that clearly implied he found the role of salesman demeaning, [a listless citizen] nodded toward a rack. I dug out what I needed and reached for my wallet. To my chagrin, I discovered I had only thirty-seven cents in change. Producing a blank check on the Vulturine and Serpentine National Bank…I scribbled out a draft…The salesman picked it up as though it were infected, vanished into the stockroom, and returned with another incompetent.
“This is our manager, Mr. Register,” he said.
“Cass Register,” he superior added with an important cough, “at your service. Is this your check?”
“No, I replied sweetly, “it’s an old sampler woven shortly after the Deerfield Massacre by Charity Sumpstone, my great-grandmother fifth removed.”
Westward Ha!, 1948
The fifties and sixties brought Perelman to the beginning of his middle age and a graduation to literary lionhood. His career continued swimmingly, each new book receiving good reviews, if not copious income. He won the Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, and he nearly had another Broadway winner with The Beauty Part, a spoof on the delusion of plumbers, housewives, and the like who think they are capable of creating artistic masterpieces in their spare time. Critics and colleagues were fairly confident Perelman had a hit on his hands until the newspaper strike of 1962 killed any chance of the public knowing that the play existed.
Douglas Fowler points out that in the play’s severe emphasis on propriety—amateurs should back off from thinking they’ve put in the time to be equal to professionals—Perelman’s devotion to good taste positioned him in rigid opposition to other strongly American values, namely that any person can realize his dreams and experimentation is necessary for the self-realization. In a Mobius-like contradiction, Perelman in fact needed the messiness of his country’s culture. In the mid-seventies, after defecting to England for three years, Perelman articulated the push-pull he felt with his home. “New York is a very difficult place to be,” he told the interviewer, “[but] when I am away, I miss the tension, the give and take…My style is a mélange—a mixture of all the sludge I read as a child, all the clichés, liberal doses of Yiddish, criminal slang, and some of what I was taught in school by impatient teachers. When I tried to think of an idiomatic expression in London, I had to reach for it. I felt out of touch with the idiom.”
Perelman’s comic sensibility and persona did start to show their first signs of strain in the mid-sixties and seventies. He was still highly-regarded, regularly named the Best Humorist in America (first by Dorothy Parker, no less), but the cultural revolutions he observed were loud, brash, ugly, and angry; the language was coarse, the dress bizarre. The blatant sexuality, despite his torrid letters to his lady pen pals, especially offended him. Newer critics disparaged him for his trivial subjects, and young comics, such as Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, staked their careers on their Jewishness. Perelman’s absence of ethnicity cast him decidedly out of vogue.
Even worse, the entire genre of the comic essay was dying. He was watching it wither in real time in the face of television and stand-up comedy. Prudence Crowther, then a young and comely woman who became friends with Perelman just before he died and edited his selected letters in 1987, recalled his reaction to seeing Robin Williams for the first time. “He was both baffled and distressed. If people wanted to be bludgeoned to death by maniacs, where did that leave him?”
His old pal, The New Yorker, was publishing writers he couldn’t stand, such as Donald Barthelme and the overly sexual John Updike. The language around him had changed, too, becoming both rigid and humorless. “Now the misuse of language has proliferated and spread everywhere,” Eudora Welty wrote. “To make it more menacing, it is taken seriously. Promoters of products, promoters of causes, promoters of self have a common language, though one with a small vocabulary.”
At no point, however, did Perelman stop writing. He continued getting travel assignments, writing more New Yorker pieces than the magazine chose to run, and batting around Broadway ideas. He and Laura kept up their itinerant habits, shuttling between Erwinna and Manhattan, again reaching a peculiar equilibrium of movement, money anxiety, hard freelance work, and visiting friends.
In 1970, Laura died two weeks after her breast cancer diagnosis. She was 58. Once more, Perelman wrote only few phrases in a few letters about his grief. In a note to E.B. White after White’s wife died in 1977, he wrote, kindly, “There aren’t any consolations at a time like this, and the assurance of friends that time will lessen the pain tends to sound glib, but it does happen very, very slowly. I just wish it were possible, though, for the dead to stay out of one’s dreams.” Unlike his peers—Pep, for example, or their mutual friend F. Scott Fitzgerald—he did not use his work to deal directly with his life, and this absolute reticence may contribute to his absence in contemporary literature. When the man behind the writer is a mystery, his subjects of parody light and small, there is less for a modern, memoir-raised reader to hold, no matter how delicious the prose.
Perelman sold the Erwinna house and nearly all his belongings immediately after Laura’s death. Though he didn’t write about it, it’s easy to speculate that losing Laura unmoored him, as troubled as their marriage was. He flitted from country to country, actively sought new lady friends, and disparaged New York. He spent his three years in England and returned in 1974, settling at last in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel.
His writing changed, too, as perhaps befit a man in the last years of his life; he became at once angrier and more reflective. Angry pieces jabbed at the ineptitude he encountered in his travels abroad and at Ernest Hemingway’s fabled machismo. The reflection showed in essays such as “Farewell to Bucks County,” a New York Times article.
Certainly long before the big stone barn had been raised on the ridge and equipped with hex signs to ward off spells or the cattle, [the deer], these original inhabitants of the land—and the pheasants, groundhogs, squirrels, moles, and all the other rightful owners of this place—had been quietly going about their business of balancing the ecology.
“Farewell to Bucks County,” New York Times, 1970
The comic torch was already being passed, as Woody Allen, the comedian who mostly closely hewed to Perelman’s persona, wrote popular pieces for The New Yorker and made successful movies. Perelman was even a fan, going to see Annie Hall three times, and when Allen won the New York Film Critics award for the screenplay of Annie Hall, Perelman was the presenter.
On October 17, 1979, Perelman died of a heart attack due to arteriosclerosis, the disease that killed his mother. Biographer Dorothy Herman remarks on the strange synchronicity of the date: Pep was born on October 17, 1903, and his mother died on October 16, 1964. Perelman probably could have written a funnier ending for himself, but the piquant elegy of this death was, like his writing, very well done.
S.J. Perelman chose the ricocheting life of a freelance comic essayist, made doubly hard by yoking himself to perfection in every sentence over five decades of wildly changing American culture. It is likely he never would have found professional or personal peace, but he did find a home in the language he knew best and changed most, his American idiom.
Today, nobody writes like Perelman (though David Sedaris has in particular resurrected the form), but the kind of humor he developed has been subsumed so thoroughly into what ‘funny’ is that even a Catholic, southern, apparently well-adjusted white guy can be a Perelman heir.
Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report is a performer, not a writer, and the scripts he works from are team-written, not eked from a single mind in a barren room. His material starts in serious politics, science, and business, not magazine advice columns and silent movies; his persona is an egomaniacal, irrational, gun-loving right wing talk show host, miles from Perelman’s literary schlemiel.
At heart, though, they are toiling along the same chain. The heat and twist of Colbert’s humor comes in part from his (and his writing team’s) sensitivity to language, and delight in it. Where Perelman pierced the bloated bubbles of advertising copy and film scripts, artistic pretensions and country aphorisms, Colbert skewers the doublespeak of politicians, the hysterical ejaculations of cable news shows, and the faux-intellectual vapidity of popular ideas. His is a parody of words, above all—“truthiness” may be the best example—and how the use of them displaces or restores reality.
Eudora Welty observed in 1970 that, “the value of the word has declined. Parody is among the early casualties of this disaster… Parody makes its point by its precision and strictness in the use of the word, probing the distinction between what is real and what is false… It’s a demanding and exacting art, and there are few with the gift of penetration, and the temerity, let alone the wit and the style, to practice it.” Her dismay at the demise of parody came at a time when social upheaval was fiercely commandeering language away from reality: free love wasn’t free; Vietnam was not a win; Nixon most certainly was a crook. She believed that Perelman could save parody, but his scope was so narrow and so light, it’s doubtful that he would have been able to deal with real politics and injustices.
Colbert, then, picks up where Perelman left off. His monologues follow loops and exaggerations, sudden incongruities of logic next to absurdity. He is in perfect control of his persona, bending and twisting it for maximum punch lines; he, again like Perelman, is the smart, careful thinker inside the buffoon, and part of their shared humor is the obvious co-existence of the two. But for Colbert, the weighty stuff of American life—so degraded after an eight-year run of gross manipulation of language (“Mission Accomplished,” Axis of Evil, enhanced interrogation techniques)—is the home for his love of idiom, and his Perelman-like wit, style, and skill.
Perelman wouldn’t have been surprised at his anonymity, but we can be, and we can ameliorate it if we choose. Why bother? Why care? Certainly, his work belongs to us as Americans, so why not take advantage of that; but we would be forsaking a great gift not to claim him, even with his topical subjects and unfamiliar vocabulary. “A great humorist” wrote William Zinsser of Perelman in 1969, “operates on a deeper current than most people suspect: pure courage. No other kind of writer risks his neck so visibly or so often on the high wire of public approval. It is the thinnest wire in all literature, and the writer lives with the certain knowledge that he will frequently fall off. Yet he is deadly serious, this acrobat teetering over our heads, or he wouldn’t keep going back out, trying to startle us with nonsense into seeing our lives with sense.”
And making us laugh.