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The glorious irrelevance of S. J. Perelman, the original remix artist

When I turned to a random page of the collected works of S.J. Perelman — newly available in a sleek, beetle-black edition, courtesy of the Library of America — here’s what I got: “Just in case anybody here missed me at the Mermaid Tavern this afternoon when the bowl of sack was being passed, I spent most of it reclining on my chaise longue in a negligee trimmed with marabou, reading trashy bonbons and eating French yellow-backed novels.”

What is this? A middle-school mnemonic for Civil War battles? A coded message explaining that Paul McCartney is dead? Anything’s possible, but even if you have no clue what a marabou is (“a large African stork,” Noah Webster informs me), even if you recognize that nobody reads bonbons, you can follow along just fine. When I read it, I picture a blond woman lying in a heart-shaped bed, nibbling candy as she rotary-dials a phone. I’m not sure where this image comes from. Possibly a Marx Brothers movie, possibly I Love Lucy. Probably both, with a few other sources mixed in.

Second-hand images of this sort abound in Perelman’s work—bits of detective stories, musicals, slapstick comedies, swashbucklers, penny dreadfuls, dead words jolted zombieishly alive by the voltage of the style. You know that people eat bonbons and read novels—the cliché is so powerful that your brain unscrambles the words on the page. Perelman’s prose flirts with nonsense, then, but a certain sense undergirds the nonsense, in the same way that chaotic abstraction by Jackson Pollock maintains its sense of up and down. His sentences may be puzzles, but they’re never muddles. They might be semantically meaningless, but you feel what they mean, all the same.

Such is the case for all great avant-garde art. And Sidney Joseph Perelman, or “Sid,” as they called him, was one of the greatest avant-garde writers in the history of American literature, as surely as Jackson Pollock was one of the greatest avant-garde painters in the history of American art.

The difference is that nobody really thought of Perelman as an avant-gardist, because Perelman — whether in the 2000-word sketches he wrote for The New Yorker between the 30s and the 70s, or in the scripts he wrote for Hollywood and Broadway during the same period — was laugh-out-loud funny. Because they’re laugh-out-loud funny, “Horse Feathers” (to name a Marx Brothers classic Perelman co-wrote) and “Annie Hall” (to name a classic directed by a shameless Perelman imitator) rarely show up on lists of the greatest avant-garde films, even though they both have more than enough fourth wall-breaks and tonal lurches and anarcho-Surrealist themes to qualify. As long as you make people laugh, you can do whatever you want and they’ll call you a populist.

Jackson Pollock painting

Splatter Artist: S.J. Perelman is frequently mentioned in connection with the Marx Brothers, but his work has aspects of avant-garde artists like Jackson Pollock. By Getty Images

It’s not just that Perelman wasn’t much of a populist (Joyce was his favorite writer, with Flaubert not far behind). Outside of a few close friends, he didn’t particularly like people. He hated children, including his own: his son was arrested for robbery at the age of 15, and from then on there was almost no contact between them. He would have divorced his wife if she hadn’t died of cancer first. His New Yorker colleagues tended to avoid him, and vice versa. He and Groucho didn’t get along, despite making each other colossally richer and more famous. He loved English culture and moved to London in his later years but moved back to the States when he found he couldn’t stand English people. From this one might surmise that Perelman got more joy from writing than from Homo sapiens — but no, he hated that, too. In his interviews and letters, writing is always agony, torture, pure pain and so on. He claimed he needed to write 37 drafts of a piece before it satisfied him, which sounds like an exaggeration until you read a finished one.

Perelman is the kind of writer (Saul Bellow is another) who makes you smell the sweat he shed for his work. There’s nothing light or breezy about his humorous pieces — the fact that he wrote most of them for the New Yorker, of all places, is flabbergasting. His work is exquisitely, ornately messy; it begs to be cleaned up, but if you cleaned it there’d be nothing left. You can’t rush through; the endless parentheticals and subordinate clauses seem aerodynamically designed to maximize drag. Every sentence is ornamented almost — but not quite — to the point of incoherence; you get the feeling that one more detail would make the whole thing crumble apart:

“I waited the length of time it would take a small, not very bright boy to recite Ozymandias, and, inching carefully along the wall, took a quick gander out the window.”

“In 1928, he informed us, he had captured a thirty-foot specimen off Billiton whose stomach contained an amazing variety of objects. I cannot remember them all, but among them were a complete set of the Waverley novels in half Morocco, a bicycle pump, an ocarina, a roll of sprigged muslin, a miter box, and an early portrait of the Duchess of Richmond by Lely.”

“Their buoyant health, needless to say, was pure illusion; hypochondriacs all, they subsisted on cracked sawdust and parsnip juice, and daily shrank their brains on the analytic couch to purge themselves of devils. In between obeisances to Freud, they banded into a hundred weird sects; the town boiled with Swedenborgians, fire worshippers, Gnostics, Anabaptists, students of Bahaism, Penitentes, Vedantists, Puseyites.”

In the entire Anglosphere, is there anyone who writes like this anymore? Paul Beatty gets there some of the time in “The Sellout,” but every few sentences he takes a breather; Perelman just keeps going and going. If his prose style forces us slower, it’s only because he wants to give us a chance to dig up all the little treasures he’s buried along the way. I could easily spend the rest of this article pointing them out. I just might.

Talking about Perelman’s style means talking in oxymorons: he was precisely vague, fastidiously sloppy, coherently rambly, original in his clichés. I have no idea how long it would take a small, not very bright boy to recite “Ozymandias.” Nobody knows how long it would take a small, not very bright boy to recite “Ozymandias.” But when I read those words, I immediately picture a scruffy fifth-grader mumbling iambic pentameter to his sneakers. The image is vivid enough to allow Perelman to get away with throwing in clichés like “inching carefully along” and “took a quick gander”; he’s calculated that one lively phrase balances out the two dead ones.

Or perhaps there’s so much livelihood in the former that it spills over into the rest of the sentence: when I read “took a quick gander,” I feel like I’m encountering the phrase for the first time in my life — where does it come from? Why does it exist? If this were a line in a Marx Brothers movie, Groucho would probably make a joke about ganders and geese. Perelman, who cowrote dozens of movies but rarely stood by the results, does Groucho one better: he draws your attention to what’s weird and punny about “take a gander,” and he does it without so much as a pun or punchline of any kind. 37 drafts, I remind you.

Marx Brothers

Five Heads Are Better Than Four: The Marx Brothers’ ‘Horsefeathers’ and ‘Monkey Business’ co-scripted by S.J. Perelman. By Getty Images

Nobody does lists like Perelman. Lots of humorous writers are capable of stringing together half a dozen esoteric, impossibly specific items, but only Perelman writes something like this and prefaces it with, “I cannot remember them all, but among them were …” Often he seems to be composing for sounds alone — the sibilant delights of “subsisted on cracked sawdust and parsnip juice,” say. Elsewhere, he flirts craftily with oxymoron — can a town really be boiled with fire worshippers? can a complete set of books really be in half Morocco? The answer to the second question is, apparently, yes: “half Morocco” is bookbinder lingo for covering a book’s spine and corners, but not the rest, in calfskin. Apologies if you already knew that, but I didn’t — reading Perelman involves fessing up to lots of things you didn’t know. At times, the Library of America collection reads like a 19th-century historical novel (one of the Waverley novels, even), full of odd-scented terms for furniture and fashion that may have been common knowledge once but certainly aren’t today. (I have no way of being sure, but I suspect the average midcentury New Yorker reader had to look up “an early portrait of the Duchess of Richmond by Lely.”)

Needless to say, nothing in Perelman is needless to say. Everything is counterintuitive to the point of ridiculousness. Which means that, actually, everything in Perelman is needless to say — it’s all proudly, gloriously irrelevant. Which means that “needless to say,” as it appears in that third excerpt, is Perelman doing what he does best — slapping language awake, making old, rusty phrases seem freshly coined. Organizer phrases like “needless to say” show up on every other page of this collection — “and so,” “as a consequence,” “therefore,” “of course,” “at this juncture,” etc. — but in Perelman’s hands they organize nothing. When he writes “at this juncture,” it’s as helpful as a roadmap without a road; his stories are nothing but junctures. But ask yourself: when was the last time the words “at this juncture” actually helped you understand something? When was it not a hollow, substance-less phrase? At least Perelman makes the hollowness funny.

Flaubert, one of the only people who wrote more drafts than Perelman, advised his fellow littérateurs to be mild in their lives and savage in their work. Perelman spent most of his life disobeying that advice. Savage arguments were more rule than exception for him, and he expended so much energy burning bridges it’s shocking he had any left over for writing (he was not especially prolific, it’s worth noting, despite working full time for more than 40 years). Some of the arguments carried over into the work. Perelman isn’t a nakedly personal writer, but his satires feature too many clueless producers, publishers, PR guys, advertisers, stars, hack screenwriters and Hollywood hangers-on to ascribe to chance. Of all the people Perelman hated, he saved the most vitriol for those who worked in creature industries but lacked any creativity. In piece after piece, we find him simultaneously restaging his exasperation with this dull lot and getting his revenge — e.g., in this sentence, one of the funniest he ever wrote: “‘We fade in on a street in London,’ began the producer, fading in on a street in London.”

Cantinflas and David Niven

Around the World in 80 Wisecracks: Cantinflas and David Niven star in the film that won S.J. Perelman an Oscar.

One of the precious few who Perelman didn’t hate (and who didn’t hate him) was his brother-in-law, the great novelist Nathanael West. Maybe they got along because they hated the same things, and kept returning to the things they hated most. Perelman dropped out of college; West dropped out of high school (though he forged a transcript to get into Tulane and stole another to get into Brown, which is where he met Perelman). They both moved to New York to become writers, though they regarded writing as a miserable chore. When the Crash left them desperate for cash, they took up screenwriting, which turned out to be so awful it made other kinds of writing seem heavenly. But they kept at it. By 1940, the year he died in a car crash, West was spending most of his time polishing C-list scripts for RKO; the obituary misspelled his name and described him as a “Hollywood scenarist,” not the author of “The Day of the Locust.” Perelman continued writing for the movies and eventually won an Oscar for adapting “Around the World in Eighty Days.” He used it as a doorstopper.

Perelman hated Hollywood but didn’t reject it altogether, a combination which makes his art hard to categorize. We’re all living, in case you hadn’t heard, in the Age of the Remix — artistic originality peaked circa 1922 and has been in decline ever since, every story worth telling has been told already, everything is ironic repetition nowadays. The main cause of this conundrum is supposed to be Hollywood, with television, advertising and the internet tied for second place. We’ve sat through so many mass-market stories of boy-meets-girl and man-versus-wild and Batman-versus-Superman, the story goes, that we’ve become in some sense hard-wired to expect them; we can’t escape the clichés of our own storytelling. So — what to do if you’re a storyteller? For some avant-garde artists, the solution has been to reject all clichés and take refuge in work so cryptic you’d need a doctorate to understand one snippet. For others, the only way out is further in: if you can’t escape cliché, embrace it — archly, knowingly, but embrace it all the same.

In fact, imprisonment in the clichés of storytelling isn’t a new conundrum at all, as anyone who’s read (or even Wiki’d) “Don Quixote” can tell you. And there are other options for the ambitious, experimental artist besides “reject all cliché” and “embrace all cliché.” Just because you don’t want to be Robert Creeley doesn’t mean you have to be Kenneth Goldsmith. Not being Andy Warhol doesn’t automatically make you Mark Rothko. Exhibit A: the collected works of S. J. Perelman, at once a scathing satire of American pop culture — Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Broadway, the whole bunch — and a shrine to it. He was never more original than when he was working with a second-hand trope or phrase. Here seems like a good place for some wordplay on “second-hand,” something with clocks or vintage stores or a tasty mixed metaphor. But alas, Perelman beat me to it, so I’ll leave you with this, from “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer”: “I doubled back to Wanamaker’s, hopped a bus up Fifth to Madison Square, and switched to a cab down Fourth, where the second-hand bookshops elbow each other like dirty urchins.”

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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