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 written:
Ah, the college boys, the college boys! I daresay that if all the sub-freshman who are intending to come to Brown could see it for what it is, a fraternity-ridden and lethargic academy of middle-class “boosters,” they would change their minds about starting for Providence next fall. 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 was born on Feb. 1, 1904, in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in Providence, R.I. His father ran a dry-goods store on Smith Hill and raised chickens, for which he nurtured a lifelong hatred.
He attended the Candace Street Grammar School and Classical High School before entering Brown in 1921. He also worked at his father’s store, at the Outlet Company and at Shepard’s Department Store in the candy department.
After dropping out of Brown, Perelman moved to Greenwich Village and got work as a cartoonist. He graduated to films in the early 1930s, 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.
Perelman did not enjoy working for the Marx Brothers, once commenting, ‘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.’
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.
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 expressions and foreign phrases. He was much admired – and imitated – by Steve Martin and Woody Allen. 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.
Perelman himself said, ‘before they made S. J. Perelman, they broke the mold.’ He wrote dozens of books, including Crazy Like a Fox, Westward Ha! and Baby, It’s Cold Inside.
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. It involved a series of imaginary letters between an angry Nehru in India and a bemused Parisian laundryman about the condition of his laundry. 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., which he described as ‘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.’
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 is seems more pestilential than before.” Two years later, he returned to New York, saying, “English life, while very pleasant, is rather bland. I expected kindness and gentility and I found it, but there is such a thing as too much couth.”
S.J. Perelman died Oct. 17, 1979.