S.J. Perelman, arguably the funniest writer of the 20th century, was already pretty funny as a commuter student at Brown University. In 1925 he was called before the dean for a January editorial in The Brown Jug. He had disparaged the college as a “fraternity-ridden and lethargic academy of middle-class boosters.”
From the dot of 9 o’clock when we rush in to fear God for fifteen minutes every morning till Cap Cameron ‘the campus policeman` puts the last blowzy drunk to bed, the spectacle is the same …
Perelman, unsurprisingly, dropped out of Brown. But not before he edited The Brown Jug and had his first book published, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge. And not before he made friends with his classmate Nathaniel West, author of that masterpiece, The Day of the Locust. He would eventually marry West’s little sister, Laura.
Perelman achieved fame in his day, winning an Oscar and influencing such comic geniuses as Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Peter Sellers. Of the writing life he felt ambivalent. “Misery breeds copy,” he once wrote. And he advised against pursuing it as a career. “Lay off the Muses,” he wrote. “It’s a very tough dollar.”
On the other hand, he once wrote,
In my more pompous moments I like to think of myself as a writer rather than a humorist, but I suppose that’s merely the vanity of advancing age.
Perelman was born on Feb. 1, 1904, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father failed as a grocer. He grew up in Providence, where his father failed as a farmer. A farm, he wrote, “is an irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.”
He attended the Candace Street Grammar School and Classical High School before entering Brown in 1921. He also managed a cigar store, at the Outlet Company and at Shepard’s Department Store in the candy department.
As a boy, he read avidly. Perelman recalled going to the library on a Friday, taking out six or seven books and reading them over the weekend. He especially loved In the Sargasso Sea by Thomas Allibone Janvier. In 1969, he visited the Providence Public Library and found it had only been taken out twice since. “I was able to recognize the very smear of chicken fat that my greasy fingers had imprisoned on the flyleaf,” he told an interviewer in 1969.
The Marx Brothers
After leaving Brown, Perelman moved to Greenwich Village and got work as a cartoonist. He graduated to films in the early 1930s, co-writing the screenplay for the Marx Brothers’ comedies Monkey Business and Horsefeathers. He wrote such classic Groucho lines as:
I tell you, you’re ruining that boy. You’re ruining him. Why can’t you do as much for me?
I thought my razor was dull until I heard his speech and that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself.
[To Thelma Todd] Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills — I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills.
Perelman hated working for the Marx Brothers. “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 until the blood spurted from his frame than ever work for those sons of bitches again,” he said.
Perelman and his wife Laura then spent 10 years collaborating on films in Hollywood. He called it “a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth.” Everybody in L.A., he wrote, “wears rhinestones on their glasses to show that they own an airplane factory.”
In 1956 he would win an Academy Award for the screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days, but it was for his comic essays that he is best remembered.
The New Yorker
Perelman had begun working for The New Yorker in 1934, joining that magazine’s stable of great comic writers including Robert Benchley, E.B. White and James Thurber. There he employed a form of surrealist humor rich with puns and literary allusions, ridiculous names, Yiddish words, Broadway slang and pompous British expressions.
“There are nineteen words in Yiddish that convey gradations of disparagement, from a mild, fluttery helplessness to a state of downright, irreconcilable brutishness,” he wrote. “All of them can be usefully employed to pinpoint the kind of individuals I write about.”He wrote dozens of books, including Crazy Like a Fox, Westward Ha! and Baby, It’s Cold Inside.
The writer Kurt Vonnegut once said,
A learning process is required to appreciate Perelman, although it’s very easy to do once you learn how to do it.
He loved to satirize news items and popular magazines. Upon reading Pandit Motilal Nehru sent his laundry to Paris, he wrote a sketch called, No Starch in the Dhoti, S’il Vous Plait. He has Nehru writing:
Spare me, I pray, your turgid rhetoric and bootlicking protestations, and be equally sparing of the bleach you use on my shirts. After a single baptism in your vats, my sky-blue jibbahs faded to a ghastly greenish-white and the fabric evaporates under one’s touch.
Perelman often wrote about his farm in Bucks County, Pa. “My interest in agriculture is limited to breakfast cereals.” he wrote.
In 1970, Perelman left the United States to take up residence in London for good. “I’ve had all of the rural splendor that I can use,” he explained, “and each time I get to New York it seems more pestilential than before.”
But English life didn’t suit him, either. He returned to New York two years later. “English life, while very pleasant, is rather bland,” he wrote. “I expected kindness and gentility and I found it, but there is such a thing as too much couth.”
Some other famous Perelman zingers include:
Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin .. it’s the triumphant twang of a bedspring.
I loathe writing. On the other hand I’m a great believer in money.
Fate was dealing from the bottom of the deck.
S.J. Perelman died Oct. 17, 1979.
This story was updated in 2023. With thanks to Conversations With S.J. Perelman.
Images: By Esrever – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2988981. Marx Brothers By MGM – ebay, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51863329. By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84191552