It Happened
in History!
(Go to It Happened in History Archives) 


S. J. Perelman

Proving time and again that absolutely everything under the sun is genuinely funny, humorist Simeon Joseph Perelman, called Sidney by his close friends, wrote about the funny business of, well, everything under the sun.  He collaborated with the Marx Brothers on the film comedies Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) and won an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).  He also wrote humor for New Yorker magazine and other publications for decades.

Born in Brooklyn on February 1, 1904, Perelman was raised in Rhode Island and attended Brown University in 1921.  But his Jewish, lower-middle-class background prevented him from fitting in with the other students.  He finally befriended a classmate who, like Perelman, had strong literary leanings.  That friend would later be known as novelist Nathanael West.  Perelman became West's brother-in-law when he married Laura West in 1929.

Perelman was strongly influenced in his writing by James Joyce, and he often parodied Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style, playing on the meanings of words and mixing in obscure words and references.  He loved playing one word against another and using double entendres and literary absurdities.  His last piece for the New Yorker was titled "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat's Paw" (1979).  Never one to shy away from the limelight, he wrote his own introduction for his book, The Best of S. J. Perelman (1947), under the pseudonym Sidney Namlerep (which is "Perelman" spelled backwards).

To say that Perelman was a funny guy is like saying that caviar is kind of expensive.  The names he gave his characters, as well as the titles of his writings, came from what he called his "lifetime devotion to puns."   He carried old newspaper clippings of articles containing funny or complex names in his pockets, and he went so far as to take out an airmail subscription to the London Times simply because he thought the names in that paper were more humorous than those in American papers.

With his ribald sense of humor, Perelman's eventual gravitation to Hollywood was a given.  He moved there during the Thirties, and the move changed his life.  He soon learned that, while he hated the atmosphere there, he hated the people more.  Still, he worked in Tinsletown for 11 years, mostly as a screen and gag writer, although he enjoyed writing for the New Yorker more. 

While Perelman wrote some longer works, his forte was the short humor essay, many examples of which were less than 1,500 words in length.  His pieces were collected in books such as Strictly from Hunger (1937), Westward Ha! (1948), The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952), The Road to Miltown; or, Under the Spreading Atrophy (1957), The Rising Gorge (1961), and Baby It's Cold Inside (1970).

Horse Feathers
Outside Speakeasy Scene

CHICO : Who are you?
GROUCHO : I'm fine, thanks, who are you?
CHICO : I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.
GROUCHO : Well, what is the password?
CHICO : Aw, no.  You gotta tell me.  Hey, I tell what I do.  I give you three guesses.  It's the name of a fish.
GROUCHO : Is it Mary?
CHICO : Ha-ha.  That's-a no fish.
GROUCHO : She isn't, well, she drinks like one.  Let me see.  Is it sturgeon?
CHICO : Hey you crazy.  Sturgeon, he's a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick.  Now I give you one more chance.
GROUCHO : I got it.  Haddock.
CHICO : That's-a funny.  I gotta haddock, too.
GROUCHO : What do you take for a haddock?
CHICO : Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
GROUCHO : Say, I'd walk a mile for a Calamel.
CHICO : You mean chocolate calamel.  I like that too, but you no guess it.  Hey, what's-a matter, you no understand English?  You can't come in here unless you say "swordfish."  Now I'll give you one more guess.

After his wife died in 1970, Perelman traveled, wrote, and lived for a time in London.  When he finally returned to Manhattan, he moved into the Gramercy Park Hotel.  His trademark was a pair of oval, steel-rimmed glasses that he had bought in Paris in 1927 and worn all his life.

Perelman said, "I'm highly irritable, and my senses bruise easily, and when they are bruised, I write."

S. J. Perelman, the man who for decades helped so many people find the lighter side of life, died in New York City on October 17, 1979.

Discover S. J. Perelman

Search Now:

Indulge Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling
Fiction - Nonfiction - DVDs

- HOME -

NOTE: All material on this site is copyright protected.  No portion of this material may be copied or reproduced, either electronically,  mechanically, or by any other means, for resale or distribution without the written consent of the author.  Contact the editors for right to reprint.  All copy has been dated and registered with the American Society of Authors and Writers.  Copyright 2006 by the American Society of Authors and Writers.







Hit Counter