S. J. Perelman

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S.J. Perelman
BornSidney Joseph Perelman
(1904-02-01)February 1, 1904
Brooklyn, New York
DiedOctober 17, 1979(1979-10-17) (aged 75)
New York, New York
OccupationAuthor, screenwriter
Alma mater Brown University
Laura West
(m. 1929;died 1970)

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.

<i>Judge</i> (magazine) defunct American weekly magazine

Judge was a weekly satirical magazine published in the United States from 1881 to 1947. It was launched by artists who had seceded from its rival Puck. The founders included cartoonist James Albert Wales, dime novels publisher Frank Tousey and author George H. Jessop.

The Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay is one of the Academy Awards, the most prominent film awards in the United States. It is awarded each year to the writer of a screenplay adapted from another source. All sequels are automatically considered adaptations by this standard.


Life and career

Perelman was born in Brooklyn, New York, the only son of Joseph and Sophie Perelman, who moved from one failed business to another until they found themselves raising chickens on a farm and running a dry-goods store [1] in Providence, Rhode Island. [2] He attended the Candace Street Grammar School and Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island. He entered Brown University in 1921, [2] where he became editor of the campus humor magazine The Brown Jug in 1924. [3] Perelman dropped out of Brown and moved to Greenwich Village in New York. [2]

Providence, Rhode Island capital of Rhode Island

Providence is the capital and most populous city of the U.S. state of Rhode Island and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a Reformed Baptist theologian and religious exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He named the area in honor of "God's merciful Providence" which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven for him and his followers. The city is situated at the mouth of the Providence River at the head of Narragansett Bay.

Classical High School

Classical High School, founded in 1843, is a public magnet school in the Providence School District, in Providence, Rhode Island. It was originally an all-male school but has since become co-ed. Classical's motto is Certare, Petere, Reperire, Neque Cedere, a Latin translation of the famous phrase taken from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses", "To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield". It has been rated "High Performing and Sustaining" by its performance in 2005 on the New Standards Reference Exam, placing third in the state. The school also made Newsweek's America's Best High Schools of 2012 with a 99% graduation rate, 95% college bound, an average SAT score of 1578, and an average AP score of 2.8. Classical High School stands roughly at the intersection of the Federal Hill, West End, and Upper South Providence neighborhoods.

<i>The Brown Jug</i>

The Brown Jug is a college humor magazine founded in 1920 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

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!.)

Al Hirschfeld American caricaturist

Albert Hirschfeld was an American caricaturist best known for his black and white portraits of celebrities and Broadway stars.

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. [4] In these numerous brief sketches he pioneered a new and unique style, using parody to "wring every drop of false feeling or slovenly thinking." [5]

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 a student at Brown. It is largely considered juvenilia [ citation needed ], and its pieces were never included in future Perelman collections.

A feuilleton was originally a kind of supplement attached to the political portion of French newspapers, consisting chiefly of non-political news and gossip, literature and art criticism, a chronicle of the latest fashions, and epigrams, charades and other literary trifles. The term feuilleton was invented by the editors of the French Journal des débats; Julien Louis Geoffroy and Bertin the Elder, in 1800. The feuilleton has been described as a "talk of the town", and a contemporary English-language example of the form is the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker.

Juvenilia are literary, musical or artistic works produced by an author during their youth. Written juvenilia, if published at all, usually appear as a retrospective publication, some time after the author has become well known for later works.

The tone of Perelman's feuilletons 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.[ citation needed ] 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.[ citation needed ]

James Thurber American cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright

James Grover Thurber was an American cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist, playwright, and celebrated wit. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine, such as "The Catbird Seat", and collected in his numerous books. He was one of the most popular humorists of his time, as he celebrated the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people. He wrote the Broadway comedy The Male Animal in collaboration with his college friend Elliott Nugent; it was later adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. His short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has been adapted for film twice, once in 1947 and again in 2013.

Sometimes he gleaned 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 satirized 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". [6]

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 heavily was 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 writings but his style was precise, clear, and the very opposite of Joycean stream of consciousness. Perelman dryly 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 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.

Frank Muir, a British expert on comic writing, 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. [7] Keillor's 'Jack Schmidt, Arts Administrator' is a parody of Perelman's classic 'Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer', [8] 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).

Broadway and film

Perelman wrote at least five original plays produced on Broadway from 1932 to 1963, two as collaborators with his wife Laura. he 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), and for the |Academy Award-winning screenplay Around the World in 80 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:

Personal life

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). [9] 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).

Perelman reportedly regarded children as a nuisance. His son Adam (born in 1936) committed several robberies in the mid 1950s, was accused of attempted rape, and ended up in a reformatory for wayward boys. [10] The two things that brought Perelman happiness were his MG automobile 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. [11]

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." [12] 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.

Cultural influence

Perelman indirectly was 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. [13]

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. [14]


Books by S.J. Perelman

Books about S.J. Perelman

Humor pieces

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  1. Lahr, John. "'I DON'T BELIEVE IN KINDLY HUMOR'" . Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  2. 1 2 3 "S.J. Perelman, Crazy Like a Fox". New England Historical Society. New England Historical Society. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  3. "How Percy Marks Got Fired from Brown for Exposing the Depravities of the Ivy League". New England Historical Society. New England Historical Society. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  4. Donald Barthelme (1982) interview in Partisan Review , Volume 49, p.185 quotation:
    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.
  5. Wilfrid Sheed (1970) The flinty eye behind the humor in Life (magazine) , Sep 18, 1970,
    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.
  6. S.J. Perelman talks to Tony Bilbow The Listener, Volume 83 p.279
  7. Garrison Keillor. Happy to Be Here. Faber, 1983. ISBN   0-571-14696-1
  8. S. J. Perelman, Fiction, "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer," The New Yorker, December 16, 1944, p. 2. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1944/12/16/1944_12_16_021_TNY_CARDS_000197922#ixzz0eXA9Wj50
  9. Conversations with S.J. Perelman, by Sidney Joseph Perelman, page xiii
  10. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2017/12/unexpected-art-deco-h-i-feldmans-1930.html
  11. Mitchell, Martha (1993). "Perelman, S.J." Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Brown University . Retrieved 2008-03-15.
  12. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/columnists/miles-kington/art--la-carte-67738.html
  13. Buckley, Christopher (2008). "Gotterdammerung-22" in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, edited by Harold Bloom. NY: Infobase Publishing. p. 154. ISBN   9780791096178 . Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  14. http://dictionary.reference.com/cite.html?qh=crazy%20like%20a%20fox&ia=ahdi