Thursday, March 09, 2023

The World of S.J. Perelman

Sidney Joseph Perelman was one of the three titans of New Yorker humor writing in their classic era, the decades before and after WWII. Benchley was witty and focused on his befuddled persona; Thurber was a cartoonist and a fictioneer with a closer relationship to the real world, in his quirky, fantasy-filled way. Perelman was the purest, the most New Yorker-ish of the bunch, the one who perfected the fabled "Shouts & Murmurs" idea of taking two concepts - often expressed as news clippings - and slamming them into each other at high velocity. Perelman was the writer's writer of the group, the one with the ridiculously large working vocabulary, the one constructing fanciful flights of whimsy on whatever random topics came to hand, for decade after decade.

These days, he's probably best-known for scripting two Marx Brothers movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. He also wrote a lot of other things for Hollywood, in the era when writers were hired guns, and even won an Oscar for the 1956 Around the World in 80 Days. But his real legacy is his short comic essays, collected in more than a dozen major books and almost as many remixed collections as Best of and Most of and Home Companion and others.

Which brings me to the 2000 British collection The World of S.J. Perelman, assembled by no one actually identified and introduced by Woody Allen, back when that was a positive. I'd read nearly all of Perelman over an extended binge back in the '90s - I love writer's writers, as a rule, and Perelman is my favorite of that New Yorker school - but it had been a while since I'd read any of his work.

At some point between 2018, when I bought this book, and December of 2022, when I picked it back up, I'd read the first eleven of the forty-one pieces here, and then, over a couple of days during the Christmas holidays, I read the rest of it. I'm not going to try to anatomize those forty-one short pieces: they're varied, and the usual rule about anatomizing humor applies. Most importantly: this is a good collection of Perelman writing, and Perelman writing is like nothing else. If you are a reader at all like me, put him on your to-read list right now.

It doesn't have to be this book - the other career retrospectives like Most of are equally good, and pretty much any of his original collections from Strictly From Hunger (1937) on as well - since Perelman had a style and maintained it for his whole career. Late-30s Perelman might have written about somewhat different topics than early-70s Perelman, but he wrote the same way, and had the same flights of language.

Look, let me quote a few titles at you - if they amuse you, the stuff in them will as well:

  • You're My Everything, Plus City Sales Tax
  • Come On In, The Liability's Fine
  • White Bimbo, Or, Through Dullest Africa With Three Sleepy People
  • Eine Kleine Mothmusik
  • Monomania, You and Me Is Quits
  • Three Loves Had I, in Assorted Flavors
The peak of Perelman is that sense of whimsy and that joy in words; he mixed Latinisms and Yiddish like no one, before or since, and delivered exactly the right word over and over and over again through a long, hugely funny career. You should read Perelman: that's my point. Go do it.

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