S.J. Perelman

By: Robert Wringham
February 1, 2015


Big-chinned granddaddy of American humorists, S.J. PERELMAN (1904–79) wrote screenplays for the Marx Brothers; directly inspired the comic writing of Woody Allen; and helped shape the work of future humorists everywhere. Precision wit, comedic obfuscation, outrageous punning, and the borrowing of impossibly perfect words from Yiddish or French are part of Perelman’s bequest, but he also provided the very form in which many humorists now write: the feuilleton, a pithy, semi-autobiographical piece, usually intended for serialization and syndication, but more integral and literary than the stuff of gossip columnists. It’s not his fault the word never caught on. Selecting an unlikely word was where Perelman excelled: reading his work, you can be rolling along contentedly, when suddenly you’re knocked sideways by a word like bierstube or sitspritzer and are forced either to reach for the dictionary or to simply rejoice in the news that you don’t know everything. Other humor writers of the time, notably Thurber, made light of themselves in memoir form, but usually in the popular mode of the “little man challenged” — the well-meaning friend and neighbor versus the world — while Perelman developed a more complex persona: strutting, superior but somehow also self-deprecating. The result is a kind of untrustworthy, trickster-like wiseguy. As he put it, “before they made S. J. Perelman, they broke the mold.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Joe Carstairs, Gilbert Hernandez, Exene Cervenka, Langston Hughes, Muriel Spark, Yevgeny Zamyatin, John Ford.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) Generations.