S. J. Perelman
time and again that absolutely everything under the sun is genuinely funny, humorist
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).
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).
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
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
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
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.
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