Harold Behr
Harold Behr

SJ Perelman, Virtuoso of the Written Word

Sidney Joseph Perelman, better known to the world as SJ Perelman, (he didn’t care for his given names)specialized in turning life into a string of gags. His hundreds of short sketches are packed with crazy associations dressed up in erudite language and peppered with the sorts of yiddishisms which would be familiar to any Jewish child brought up in the secret world of immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. His writings keyed me in to the joys of satire, incongruity and sheer nonsense. Woody Allen, who acknowledged his indebtedness to Perelman, came later, as did Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and the many other talented Jewish actors and writers who made life bearable for me.

I discovered Perelman through ‘Westward Ha!’, an account of his travels to exotic places with his friend Al Hirschfield, the equally brilliant caricaturist. I was an unripe adolescent, ready for my imagination and vocabulary to be stretched by his manic prose. Now that I have re-visited him in old age I can confidently add my signature to the list of names calling for him to be pronounced one of the greatest English language humorists of the twentieth century.

One example is worth more than a thousand adjectives. Here he is in ‘Westward Ha!’, recording his impressions as he wanders through a busy marketplace somewhere in China:

“A veritable fusillade of smells, compounded of the pungent odors of deep fat, shark’s fin, sandalwood, and open drains, now bombarded our nostrils and we found ourselves in the thriving hamlet of Chinnwangtao. Every sort of object imaginable was being offered by street hawkers – basketwork, noodles, poodles, hardware, leeches, breeches, peaches, watermelon seeds, roots, boots, flutes, coats, shorts, stoats, even early vintage phonograph records. In a pile of the latter I found a fairly well-preserved copy of that classical minstrelsy, ‘Cohen on the Telephone’. ”

The titles of his sketches hint at what the reader is in for. ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Steam’, tells of his encounter with an electric blanket. “I bet I could pass through a room containing an electric comforter in the original gift box and emerge with a third degree burn,” he says, and ends on a not very reassuring note: “Luckily I had the presence of mind to plunge it into a pail of water and yell for help. Right now, it’s over at some expert’s office, about to be analyzed. And so am I, honey, if I can lay my hands on a good five-cent psychiatrist.”

‘Is there an Osteosynchrondroitician in the House?’ announces his morbid fascination with the gently rotating bones of an articulated foot display in a shoestore window. He is driven mad by its “macabre shuffle” but eventually goes to bed and sleeps “like a top, with no assistance except three and a half grains of barbital”.

There’s nothing mundane about ‘The Hand That Cradles the Rock’. It’s about a tough woman publisher who has a morbid fear of “being yessed to death by sycophantic staffers” and lays traps for them by offering mediocre ideas of her own to see whether they will have the gumption to challenge her. Halfway through, the story morphs into a play about an editorial meeting, chaired by a mythical ‘queen-pin of the pulp oligarchy”.

‘Stringing up Father’ parodies the title of an ancient comic strip, ‘Bringing up Father’. However, the title here is simply a hook on which to hang a jaded account of a thoroughly rotten father-son relationship. An anguished father, having groomed his son for greatness in the business sector, finds himself ignominiously displaced from his executive position by his offspring, aged all of thirteen. I only picked up on the woeful irony of this when I learnt about Perelman’s problems with his own son, who fell foul of the law during his teenage years and spent time in a reformatory.

Another of his sketches, ‘I’ll Always Call You Schnorrer, My African Explorer’, entertains us with a bizarre description of Perelman’s reunion with his fellow comedy-maker, Groucho Marx, but apart from some barbed allusions to Groucho’s stinginess and the adhesive descriptor of the title, the piece says less about the relationship between these two giants of comedy than Groucho’s reflection that “(Perelman) had a head as big as my desk”. We also have Perelman’s apparent determination to airbrush out of existence any reference to his collaboration with the Marx brothers. Perelman and Groucho appear to have fallen out like two children after a playground spat which lasted into adult life, a classic case of ‘farribel’ without a cause.

In yet another of his miniscule sketches the curtain opens, and closes shortly afterwards, on a Christmas play.’Waiting for Santy’ provides a glimpse of Santa’s sweatshop in which his gnomes, with names like Rankin, Panken, Rivkin and Riskin, bicker and grumble about their work conditions while one of them falls in love with Santa’s daughter.

Perelman wrote numerous short pieces for the New Yorker and was recruited by the Marx Brothers to script a couple of their films. He also wrote longer books and plays but his prolific writings defy pigeonholing. Dorothy Parker made the definitive assessment of him. “Mr Perelman stands alone in this day of humorists”, she wrote. To which I would add Perelman’s own comment about himself: “They broke the mold before they made Perelman.”

To Perelman, fact and fiction are irrelevant constructs. What matters is the unexpected, the incongruous, the tiny incident which trips us up and therefore deserves to be enlarged into a fantastical hyperbole. Life for him is an arena strewn with banana skins over which he dances with grace and dignity, until he too slips and comes crashing down in a pratfall of his own making.

It is seldom rewarding, I find, to look too deeply into the personal histories of one’s childhood heroes and the real SJ Perelman remains something of an enigma to me. He was born in New York to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia to the United States. His talent emerged when he began writing for the college magazine at Brown University and he went on to become a screen writer, playwright and author of numerous sketches, rounding off his illustrious career as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His marriage to a woman from a Lithuanian Jewish background lasted for fifty years until her death, despite rumours of a strained relationship due to his infidelities. The emotions intrinsic to family life (he had a daughter as well as the son mentioned above) remain hidden behind a veil of jokes. In his later years he tried living in England but found it not to his taste (“too much couth”) and returned to the United States, where he died aged 75, in 1979.

Perelman writes like someone who has firsthand knowledge of neurotic angst, hysteria and hypochondriasis, but there are no clues in his writing to throw light on what the man behind the comic mask is really thinking. Anything of a personal nature is drowned in a sea of wisecracks. Was he the sad clown of popular mythology or just a well-educated word wizard with a feel for what makes people laugh? However you care to judge him, he remains ensconced as one of the most influential humorists of modern times.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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