Sidney Joseph “S. J.” Perelman (February 1, 1904 – October 17, 1979) was an American humorist and screenwriter. He is best known for his humorous short pieces written over many years for The New Yorker. He also wrote for several other magazines, including Judge, as well as books, scripts, and screenplays. Perelman received an Academy Award for screenwriting in 1956 how to make meat tenderizer at home.
Perelman wrote many brief, humorous descriptions of his travels for various magazines, and of his travails on his Pennsylvania farm, all of which were collected into books. (A few were illustrated by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who accompanied Perelman on the round-the-world trip recounted in Westward Ha!)
Perelman is highly regarded for his humorous short pieces that he published in magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, most often in The New Yorker. For these, he is considered the first surrealist humor writer of the United States. In these numerous brief sketches he pioneered a new style that was unique to him, using parody to “wring every drop of false feeling or slovenly thinking custom team jerseys.”
They were infused with a sense of ridicule, irony, and wryness and frequently used his own misadventures as their theme. Perelman chose to describe these pieces as feuilletons — a French literary term meaning “literary or scientific articles; serial stories” (literally “little leaves”) — and he defined himself as a feuilletoniste. Perelman’s only attempt at a conventional novel (Parlor, Bedlam and Bath, written in collaboration with Q J Reynolds) was unsuccessful, and throughout his life he was resentful that authors who wrote in the full-length form of novels received more literary respect (and financial success) than short-form authors like himself even as he openly admired British humorist P.G. Wodehouse. While many believe Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge to be a novel, it is actually his first collection of humorous pieces, many written while he was still a student at Brown. It is largely considered juvenilia and its pieces were never included in future Perelman collections.
The tone of Perelman’s feuilletons, however, was very different from those sketches of the inept “little man” struggling to cope with life that James Thurber and other New Yorker writers of the era frequently produced. Yet his references to himself were typically wittily self-deprecatory—as for example, “before they made S. J. Perelman, they broke the mold.” Although frequently fictional, very few of Perelman’s sketches were precisely short stories.
Sometimes he would glean an apparently off-hand phrase from a newspaper article or magazine advertisement and then write a brief, satiric play or sketch inspired by that phrase. A typical example is his 1950s work, “No Starch in the Dhoti, S’il Vous Plait.” Beginning with an off-hand phrase in a New York Times Magazine article (“…the late Pandit Motilal Nehru—who sent his laundry to Paris—the young Jawaharlal’s British nurse etc. etc. …), Perelman composed a series of imaginary letters that might have been exchanged in 1903 between an angry Pandit Nehru in India and a sly Parisian laundryman about the condition of his laundered underwear.
In other sketches, Perelman would satirize popular magazines or story genres of his day. In “Somewhere A Roscoe,” he pokes fun at the “purple prose” writing style of 1930s pulp magazines such as Spicy Detective. In “Swing Out, Sweet Chariot,” he examines the silliness of the “jive language” found in The Jitterbug, a teen magazine with stories inspired by the 1930s Swing dance craze. Perelman voraciously read magazines to find new material for his sketches. (He often referred to the magazines as “Sauce for the gander.”)
Perelman also occasionally used a form of word play that was, apparently, unique to him. He would take a common word or phrase and change its meaning completely within the context of what he was writing, generally in the direction of the ridiculous. In Westward Ha!, for instance, he writes: “The homeward-bound Americans were as merry as grigs (the Southern Railway had considerately furnished a box of grigs for purposes of comparison) … “. Another classic Perelman pun is “I’ve got Bright’s Disease and he’s got mine”.
He also wrote a notable series of sketches called Cloudland Revisited in which he gives acid (and disillusioned) descriptions of recent viewings of movies (and recent re-readings of novels) that had enthralled him as a youth in Providence, Rhode Island, later as a student at Brown University, and then while a struggling comic artist in Greenwich Village.
A number of his works were set in Hollywood and in various places around the world. He stated that as a young man he was heavily influenced by James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, particularly his wordplay, obscure words and references, metaphors, irony, parody, paradox, symbols, free associations, clang associations, non-sequiturs, and sense of the ridiculous. All these elements infused Perelman’s own writings but his own style was precise, clear, and the very opposite of Joycean stream of consciousness. Perelman drily admitted to having been such a Ring Lardner thief that he should have been arrested. Woody Allen has in turn admitted to being influenced by Perelman and recently has written what can only be called tributes, in very much the same style. The two once happened to have dinner at the same restaurant, and when the elder humorist sent his compliments, the younger comedian mistook it for a joke. Authors that admired Perelman’s ingenious style included T. S. Eliot and W. Somerset Maugham.
A British expert on comic writing, Frank Muir, lauded Perelman as the best American comic author of all time in his Oxford Book of Humorous Prose. Humorist Garrison Keillor has declared his admiration for Perelman’s writing. Keillor’s ‘Jack Schmidt, Arts Administrator’ is a parody of Perelman’s classic ‘Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer’, itself a parody of the Raymond Chandler school of tough, amorous ‘private-eye’ crime fiction. Irish comedian and actor, Dylan Moran listed Perelman as a major influence in his December 13, 2012 interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast (episode 343).
Perelman wrote at least five original plays produced on Broadway from 1932 to 1963, two as collaborators with his wife Laura. The first was the musical revue Walk a Little Faster which opened in December 1932. With Ogden Nash he wrote the book for the musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Nash), which opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for more than 500 performances. His final play The Beauty Part (1962), which starred Bert Lahr in multiple roles, fared less well, its short run attributed in part to the 114-day 1962 New York City newspaper strike.
In cinema, Perelman is noted for co-writing scripts for the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) historic football shirts, and for the Academy Award-winning screenplay Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).
Along with his explicit credits, Perelman and Laura West Perelman worked as contract screenwriters for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and made uncredited contributions for films such as Sweethearts (1938).
His official credits include:
Perelman’s personal life was difficult. In 1929 at the age of 25 he married the 18-year-old sister of his school friend Nathanael West, Laura West (née Lorraine Weinstein). The two worked as writing collaborators on the 1935 play All Good Americans, produced on Broadway, and both were signed by Irving Thalberg as contract screenwriters for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the same year. They remained married until Laura’s death in 1970. Perelman did not remarry.
The marriage was strained from the start because of his innumerable affairs (notably with Leila Hadley). Both the 1986 biography by Dorothy Herrmann and the Selected Letters (“Don’t Tread on Me”, edited by Prudence Crowther) suffer from the fact that “Lotharian Sid’s” erotic escapades and fantasies have been censored beyond recognition to protect certain individuals .
Perelman reportedly regarded children as a nuisance. Their son Adam (born in 1936) ended up in a reformatory for wayward boys. The two things that brought him happiness were his MG car and a mynah bird, both of which he pampered like babies. His Anglophilia turned rather sour when late in his life he (temporarily) relocated to England and actually had to socialize with the English themselves.
Perelman had a problematic relationship with Groucho Marx, who once said, “I hated the son of a bitch, and he had a head as big as my desk.” In the later years of Perelman’s career, he bristled at being identified as a writer of Marx Brothers material, insisting that his publishers omit any mention of it in publicity material.
Perelman was indirectly responsible for the success of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. When first published, this novel received lukewarm reviews and indifferent sales. A few months later, Perelman was interviewed for a national publication. The interviewer asked Perelman if he had read anything funny lately. Perelman—a man not noted for generosity with his praise—went to considerable lengths to commend Catch-22. After the interview was published, sales of Heller’s novel skyrocketed.
Perelman picked up plenty of pungent expressions from Yiddish and liberally sprinkled his prose with these phrases, thus paving the way for the likes of Philip Roth.
The phrase “crazy like a fox” gained currency in the 20th century after Perelman used it as a book title in 1944.
People like SJ Perelman and EB White – people who could do certain amazing things in prose. Perelman was the first true American surrealist – ranking with the best in the world surrealist movement.
direct assault on culture… to flay the barbarian enemy: the hucksters and the hacks, the beaming empty face of commercial society… It was his special pleasure in the ’30s and ’40s to take some inoffensive professional manual by the scruff and wring from it every drop of false feeling or slovenly thinking.