On S.J. Perelman


Today is the birthday of the great American humorist S.J. Perelman (Simeon “Sidney” Joseph Perelman, 1904-1979). Because of his association with The New Yorker he is often assumed to have been a member of the Algonquin Roundtable; because he wrote for the Marx Brothers he is often thought to have been an intime of Groucho. Both assumptions are not just overstatements, but sort of false. (Perelman was younger and came along later than the Algonquin bunch; and he and Groucho were not the perfect fit they outwardly seem at superficial glance.)

Born to a machinist and dry good store owner in Brooklyn, Perelman was raised in Providence, where he was a frequent childhood habitue of the local vaudeville and movie houses. (He later reminisced at length about what the Marx Brothers vaudeville act had been like). He attended Brown, where he became buddies with Nathanael Westand drew cartoons and wrote short pieces for the college humor magazine. This grew naturally into getting published in national magazines, most famously The New Yorker starting in the late 1920s. (The Algonquin bunch dated from about a decade or more earlier). Published collections of Perelman’s humorous short stories began coming out almost immediately; such would continue to appear throughout his life and posthumously. His humor writing was enormously influential; the most obvious acorn off of Perelman’s tree is Woody Allen. 

In 1929, Perelman married West’s sister Laura, with whom he was to collaborate on many Broadway plays and Hollywood screenplays, although his most notable work was achieved with other partners. Perelman’s first screenplay was Monkey Business (1931) for the Marx Brothers, which he cowrote with several collaborators. This was the first Marx Brothers vehicle that had not previously been a Broadway show, and had to be created from the ground up. (The first reading of the script, intoned by Perelman himself, was said to have put several of the brothers to sleep, and to have provoked the reaction from Groucho, “It stinks!”) After much exposure, the aficionado can pick out Perelman’s voice in the screenplay, and hear what works and doesn’t work. I was amused to realize for example that all of that gangster lingo of Alkie Briggs and his cohorts must certainly have come from the pen of Perelman; he had parodied this hard-boiled style of writing in humor pieces countless times. But surprisingly, the sharply literate verbal comedian Groucho found many of Perelman’s lines TOO sharply literate, and had some distaste about delivering them. Still, Perelman was kept on for one more Marx Brothers classic Horse Feathers (1932) which also shows his hilarious hand. By then Perelman was also writing for the likes of Wheeler and Woolsey, Jack Oakie, and others. His Hollywood period ended around 1940, although he would return occasionally, notably for his Oscar winning 1956 script adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days).

Perelman’s first Broadway show was the 1932 Bobby Clark revue Walk a Little Faster. Of his half dozen or so other efforts, the best known are his smash hit musical One Touch of Venus (1943-1945), cowritten with Ogden Nash, with music by Kurt Weill, and the 1962 Bert Lahr vehicle The Beauty Part, a work of genius that was killed by the catastrophic newspaper strike that year. He continued to churn out his distinctive humorous prose until his death in 1979.

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