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, unsurprisingly, dropped out of Brown. But not before he edited The Brown Jug and had his first book published, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge. And not before he made friends with his classmate Nathaniel West. He would eventually marry West’s little sister, Laura.
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 his son nurtured the keenest hatred.
He attended the Candace Street Grammar School and Classical High School before entering Brown in 1921. He also managed a cigar store and worked at his father’s store, at the Outlet Company and at Shepard’s Department Store in the candy department.
As a boy, he read avidly. Perelman recalled going to library on a Friday, taking out six or seven books and reading them over the weekend. He especially loved In the Sargasso Sea by Thomas Allibone Janvier. “I checked recently at the Providence Public Library and found that it has only been taken out twice since. I was able to recognize the very smear of chicken fat that my greasy fingers had imprisoned on the flyleaf,” he told an interviewer in 1969.
The Marx Brothers
After leaving Brown, Perelman moved to Greenwich Village and got work as a cartoonist. He graduated to films in the early 1930s, co-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.
[To Thelma Todd] Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills — I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills.
Perelman did not enjoy working for the Marx Brothers. He once commented, “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.”
Perelman and his wife Laura then spent 10 years collaborating on films in Hollywood. He called it “a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth.”
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.
The New Yorker
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.
“There are nineteen words in Yiddish that convey gradations of disparagement, from a mild, fluttery helplessness to a state of downright, irreconcilable brutishness,” he wrote. “All of them can be usefully employed to pinpoint the kind of individuals I write about.”
He was much admired – and imitated – by Steve Martin and Woody Allen. Peter Sellers called him his mentor. 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. He described it 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.”
Other classic S.J. Perelman lines include:
Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin – it’s the triumphant twang of a bedspring.
Where would the Rockefellers be today if old John D. had gone on selling short-weight kerosene … to widows and orphans instead of wisely deciding to mulct the whole country.
My interest in agriculture is limited to breakfast cereals.
Misery breeds copy.
Lay off the Muses. It’s a very tough dollar.
Too Much Couth
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 it seems more pestilential than before.”
He then returned to New York two years later. “English life, while very pleasant, is rather bland,” he wrote. “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.
This story was updated in 2021. With thanks to Conversations With S.J. Perelman.