An appreciation of SJ Perelman written by Gary Sutton 17.3.2020
Making a living as a writer is hard enough, but if you also want to be famous, you
should probably become a novelist or – at a stretch – a newspaper columnist. If
you happen to be a screenwriter or a magazine writer, fame will probably elude
you – or it will be confined to a small circle of admirers.
The fate of Sidney Joseph Perelman – SJ Perelman – is that these days he’s not so
much famous among a discerning coterie of readers, as pretty much forgotten.
Cynical and amused by life and its vicissitudes to the end, he probably wouldn’t
have minded too much.
Perelman was born in 1904 in New York and died in 1979. In his later years he
lived in the UK. Reportedly, his two great passions were his MG sports car and
his mynah bird. He married at 25, but although the relationship didn’t last, he
never got around to divorcing his first wife. He was not fond of children and his
son Adam led a troubled life – committing robbery, being accused of attempted
rape and ending up in a reformatory school.
During Perelman’s life he was best known as a screenwriter and magazine
writer. In the early 1930s he wrote two scripts for the Marx Brothers – “Monkey
Business” and “Horse Feathers”. He seems to have fallen out with Groucho, who
said of Perelman: “I hated the son of a bitch and he had a head as big as my desk”.
Much later – in 1956 – he won an Academy Award for the screenplay of “Around
the World in 80 Days”.
In the 30s and 40s he was a regular contributor to several US magazines that, in
those days, enabled writers to make a living – sometimes a very good living. The
best-known and still surviving of these is “The New Yorker”. Perelman also
wrote several plays that were produced on Broadway.
While I was researching this piece I googled Perelman’s name and found this
comment by Craig Brown – who owes quite a bit to Perelman. Reviewing a
collection of articles about Auberon Waugh he commented: “I have books of old
columns by SJ Perelman – in his day, considered the funniest writer of them all –
that would now strike most readers as unbelievably verbose. Fifty years on, the
world has become a lot speedier, and we no longer find it amusing to witness a
one-liner stretched to breaking point across two or three pages.”
As a summary of Perelman’s style that’s a little unfair. For me his undeniable
verbosity coupled to his knowledge, persona and sheer style is a huge part of his
Maybe it’s also an escape from current humorous writers, such as John Niven,
Craig Brown himself, Jonathan Coe – to a lesser extent – even people like Stuart
Maconie. I enjoy them all, but while I can see how they do what they do, with
Perelman it’s less obvious and – for me – more fun.
Perelman was – among many things – a master of the English language. He also
threw in slang, words and phrases from other languages and he had a skewed –
but perfectly reasonable – view of life and of people. One of his obvious techniques
or stratagems was to take a familiar form and push it, vary it and play with it.
One of the first pieces of Perelman that I remember reading parodies the hard-
boiled, Mickey Spillane school of pulp fiction. Not only does “Somewhere a Roscoe”
use this style to comic effect, it somehow encapsulates all you really need to know
about the genre. And it’s affectionate rather than merely condescending or
Perelman was just as effective with higher forms of literature. “A Farewell to
Omsk” parodies Dostoyevsky. “Waiting for Santy” uses Clifford Odets’ socialist
style for a Christmas story and so on. When he stretched out – in multi-part pieces
like “Cloudland Revisited” and “Westward Ha!” the effect is cumulative and almost
dangerously hilarious. He did write a novel, but that now languishes in hard-to-
He also seemed to know everything – not just where it concerned writing, but
current trends in art, music, popular culture, fashion and so on. Wisely he avoided
writing about politics.
Perelman’s style and ingenuity ultimately creates a world unto itself – a world that
doesn’t take anything too seriously and where we might find fun in the author’s
own struggles, minor victories, his triumphs and disasters.
As his greatest critic Sidney Namlerep said: “they broke the mould before they
The best introductions to Perelman – “The Most of SJ Perelman” and “The World of
SJ Perelman” – are hefty volumes covering most of his writing career so they are
probably all that you need.