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Encyclopedia > S.J. Perelman

Sidney Joseph Perelman, almost always known as S. J. Perelman (February 1, 1904October 17, 1979), was a United States humorist, author, and screenwriter. He is primarily known for his humorous short pieces written over many years for The New Yorker magazine.


In cinema, Perelman is noted for co-writing scripts for the Marx Brothers films Horse Feathers and Monkey Business and for the Academy Award-winning screenplay Around the World in Eighty Days.


Perelman's work is difficult to characterize. He wrote many brief, humorous descriptions of his travels for various magazines, and of his travails on his Pennsylvania farm, all of which were collected into books. He also wrote numerous sketches, or feuilletons, for The New Yorker in a style that was unique to him. They were infused with a sense of ridicule, irony, and wryness and frequently used his own misadventures as their theme.


Their tone, however, was very different from those sketches of the inept "little man" struggling to cope with life that James Thurber and other New Yorker writers of the era frequently produced. Although frequently fictional, none of Perelman's sketches were precisely short stories. Sometimes he would glean an apparently off-hand phrase from a newspaper article or magazine advertisement and then write a brief, satiric play or sketch inspired by that phrase. A typical example is his 1950s work, "No Starch in the Dhoti, S'il Vous Plait."


Beginning with an off-hand phrase in a New York Times Magazine article ("...the late Pandit Motilal Nehru -- who sent his laundry to Paris -- the young Jawaharlal's British nurse etc. etc....), Perelman composes a series of imaginary letters that might have been exchanged in 1903 between an angry Pandit Nehru in India and a sly Parisian laundryman about the condition of his laundered underwear.


Perelman also occasionally used a form of word play that was, apparently, unique with him. He would take a common word or phrase and change its meaning completely within the context of what he was writing, generally in the direction of the ridiculous. In Westward Ha!, for instance, he writes: "The homeward-bound Americans were as merry as grigs (the Southern Railway had considerately furnished a box of grigs for purposes of comparison) ... "


He also wrote a notable series of sketches called "Cloudland Revisited" in which he gives acid (and disillusioned) descriptions of recent viewings of movies that had enthralled him as a youth in 1919 Providence, Rhode Island.


A number of his works were set in Hollywood and in various places around the world. He stated that as a young man he was heavily influenced by James Joyce, particularly his wordplay, obscure words and references, metaphors, irony, parody, paradox, symbols, free associations, non-sequiturs, and sense of the ridiculous. All these elements infused Perelman's own writings but his own style was precise, clear, and the very opposite of Joycean stream of consciousness. Woody Allen has in turn admitted to being influenced by Perelman and recently has written what can only be called tributes, in very much the same style.


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