S.J. Perelman
S.J. Perelman; drawing by David Levine

“If one laughs at a joke really heartily,” Freud remarks rather earnestly in his work on that subject, “one is not in precisely the best mood for investigating its technique.” Freud is perfectly right, of course, but his tone should not mislead us. He has obviously been laughing heartily himself at his own most recent example, and I picture him as flinging his pen down, wiping his eyes, and all but falling off his chair. The specimen which seems to have started this thinly disguised unscholarly mirth concerns two East European Jews who meet near the bathhouse. The first one says, “Have you taken a bath?” and the other one replies, “What, is there one missing?”

One might conclude from this that Freud’s taste in jokes was not sophisticated. But I prefer to conclude that Freud knew a terrible joke when he saw one and laughed heartily all the same. Good jokes defy analysis, even Freud’s; and bad jokes don’t need analysis, Freud’s or anyone else’s. But truly terrible jokes have a certain eloquent transparency. They want desperately to be jokes, they signify a will to make humor sprout on the most barren ground, and we laugh—if we laugh, some people just wince—at the exposed desire and the hideous ingenuity so unapologetically displayed.

There are plenty of examples in the films of Mel Brooks, and there are hundreds in Finnegans Wake: the origin of spices, an intrepidation of our dreams, our notional gullery, the crime minister, parsonal violence, something to right hume about, and so on. But such jokes for Joyce are a small part of a very large project, and the modern master of the terrible joke pursued for its own lamentable sake is S.J. Perelman, who has been torturing the English language since the 1930s, at times on behalf of the Marx Brothers, but mostly on his own account, in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

The titles or subtitles of almost any handful of Perelman pieces are enough to illustrate his preeminence in the field: “Nothing but the Tooth,” “To Sleep, Perchance to Steam,” “Rancors Aweigh,” “Muddler on the Roof,” “Under the Spreading Atrophy,” “It’s Not the Heat It’s the Cupidity,” “Nobody Knows the Rubble I’ve Seen, / Nobody Knows but Croesus.” But the following instances show just how far the man will go in ransacking his mother tongue for double-entendre, to say nothing of double meanings. A man is reading The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and has mislaid his copy. He wanders into the nursery and asks his small son, “Have you noticed any Gissing around here?” “No, sir,” his son says, “but I saw you pinching Nannie in the linen closet.” Worse still, another man is said to be washing ghosts in his bathroom, where there is also a strong smell of not very expensive perfume. His wife asks him what he is doing, and he says, “Why, nothing, dear. I’m just separating the chypre from the ghosts.”

All puns are a form of crowding in language, a linguistic equivalent of Groucho Marx’s steamship cabin in A Night at the Opera. A surplus of meanings huddles in our small supply of vowels and consonants, and we relish the implication that our language is richer than the noises it makes, along with the further implication that our lives are richer than our language. There is an escape in puns, and not only an escape from solemnity. Perelman’s puns, however, along with his other, related verbal misdemeanors, suggest not only that language is less straight-forward than it looks but that the mere use of language is a risky business. We could make ourselves ridiculous at any minute, and if reading Joyce teaches us to spot our cliches, to sort out all the commonplaces which haunt us like shabby creditors, reading Perelman teaches us to worry about every clause, to suspect every phrase of harboring some horrible gag. We shall be lucky, Perelman insinuates, if we get to the end of the next sentence without falling into the soup, and he insinuates this by falling promptly and deliberately into the soup himself.

I was folding boy’s windbreakers at the folded boys’ windbreaker counter….” “I have a well-defined suspicion, bounded on the south by Fortieth Street and the north by Fifty-Seventh….” We sauntered into the rumpus room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her….” “With a blow I sent him groveling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh-picked grovels….” No idiom is safe when Perelman is in the neighborhood. Figures spring to literal life as if they were the travestied offspring of Henry James’s beast in the jungle. “One day I realized how introspective I had grown and decided to talk to myself like a Dutch uncle. ‘Luik here, Mynheer,’ I began….” “I’ll drive you back to Paris, but first we have to drop off a bureau at my aunt’s….”


“You play your cards pretty close to your chest, don’t you, Mr. Dexterides?” I said.

“It’s the only way I can see them,” he apologized. “I’m a very nearsighted man….”

“You revere women?” she asked puzzled.

“I worship the ground they walk on,” I admitted. “Not the women, you understand, just the ground they walk on….”

Perelman does to language what the Marx Brothers in their films used to do to bureaucrats:

“And you were cruel,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he added Quigley.

“Why did you add Quigley?” I begged him. He apologized and subtracted Quigley, then divided Hogan….

Alaunia Alaunovna dropped a small curtsy. The young man, a pitying expression on his face, picked it up and quickly returned it to her. She gave him a grateful glance named Joe….

Perelman, I think, is not as inventive as Thurber, and not as witty, in the ordinary sense, as Robert Benchley. But there is a recognizable Perelman world, embodied, for example, in a loopy upper-class household (“The room has a lived-in air: a fistful of loose emeralds lies undusted in an ashtray, and the few first folios in evidence are palpably dog-eared”) which has not only a bust of Amy Lowell by Epstein and a bust of Epstein by Amy Lowell, but also a bust of Amy Epstein by Lowell Thomas; and in the following portrait of a happy man in bed with his long-suffering wife. Monty Stringfellow

is constantly roaring out songs commanding you to quaff the nutbrown ale, and interlards his speech with salty imprecations like “Gadzooks” and “By my halidom.” Tanagra, his wife, is a sultry discontented creature on whom fifteen years of life with a jolly good fellow have left their mark. As the curtain rises, Monty, in a tweed nightgown, is seated upright in their double bed singing a rollicking tune, to which he beats time with a pewter tankard and a churchwarden pipe. Tanagra, a sleep mask over her eyes, is trying to catch a little shut-eye and getting nowhere.

Another section of this world is represented by places like the San Culotte, “a rather dusty family hotel in the West Forties,” where the customer is always wrong and the manager is outraged that a client should have left because of the roaches. “Listen,” the manager says. “I put thirteen thousand dollars’ worth of roaches into this place to give it a homelike atmosphere, and anybody who doesn’t like ’em can start packing.” The same manager also berates his assistant for taking sides with the clientele. “We’ve got an ugly name for that in our business, boy,” he says. “It’s called taking sides with the clientele.”

Above all, there is a recognizable Perelman style, a jumpy, parody-strewn prose which is echoed not only by Woody Allen but also by Thomas Pynchon. It is a matter of fast modulations, quick shifts of tone which are themselves very funny. And it is a matter of a certain indifference to decorum, to the notion of a single style in which all borrowed styles would harmonize—in this light, even Benchley seems bland beside Perelman. A magazine called Spicy Detective, Perelman says, has “achieved the sauciest blend of libido and murder this side of Gilles de Rais.” The school bully in the sixth grade, he tells us, was “a hulking evil-faced youth related on both sides of his family to Torquemada,” and the role of Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives was that of “a spurious Russian noble named Ladislaw Sergius von Karamzin, as ornery a skunk as ever flicked a riding crop against a boot.” Several cultures crisscross in these phrases—or rather American culture, crisscrossed by slang and legend and hokum and refractions of European history, speaks in its own variegated voice. Perelman was writing like this at a time when most American writers were still trying, on the page, to sound English.

There is always the sense of a slipping mask in Perelman’s pieces, the suggestion of a fragile fantasy which may collapse at any minute. This is a carefully contrived effect: the mask never slips entirely, the fantasy quivers a lot but never collapses. There are no real confessions in Perelman. But the effect allows Perelman to acknowledge all kinds of things that comedy is often supposed to deny—and often does deny. In the following passage, all the pain and fear the jokes are about come across as clearly as if the jokes were not there. Yet the jokes are there, and are very funny. The story concerns a visit to a dentist.


By eleven the next morning, I was seated in the antechamber of one Russell Pipgrass, DDS, limply holding a copy of the National Geographic upside down and pretending to be absorbed in Magyar folkways. Through the door communicating with the arena throbbed a thin, blood-curdling whine like a circular saw biting into a green plank. Suddenly an ear-splitting shriek rose above it, receding into a choked gurgle. I nonchalantly tapped out my cigarette in my eardrum and leaned over to the nurse, a Medusa type with serpents writhing out from under her prim white coif.

“Ah—er—pardon me,” I observed, swallowing a bit of emery paper I had been chewing. “Did you hear anything just then?”

“Why, no,” she replied, primly tucking back a snake under her cap. “Why do you mean?”

“A—kind of scratchy sound,” I faltered.

“‘Oh, that,” she sniffed carelessly. “Impacted wisdom tooth. We have to go in through the skull for those you know….”

The hyperbole, the failed nonchalance, the tough nurse, the homely simile, the unobtrusive choice of the word arena, the allusion to Medusa and the unexpected second appearance of one of her snakes—all these items have their counterparts elsewhere in Perelman’s writing, which help to make it a natural habitat for terrible jokes, those monuments to laughter against the odds. Except that the odds for Perelman, once he can write like this, are pretty good.

Perelman’s favorite pretexts are pulp fiction, old movies, nonsense in journalism and advertising, and travel. His travel pieces—Westward Ha!, The Swiss Family Perelman, the new book Eastward Ha!, and a number of essays scattered about other volumes—generally work best when they are least concerned with their nominal subjects. When Perelman tries seriously to describe what he has seen, he tends to alternate between platitudes (the charm of the Siamese, the apathy of the French, the fortitude of the British) and a rather weary line of wisecracks: Macao is said to be “slightly less exciting than a rainy Sunday evening in Rochester,” and the night life of Bombay to be “roughly on a par with that of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania.”

There is very little of this in the new book. Perelman visits—or says he visits—Scotland, France, Russia, Turkey, Rhodes, Israel, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Java, Tahiti, and Hollywood, but these places turn very quickly into figments of the author’s hectic mind. Any impression you may get of having seen it all before is entirely justified and plainly intended. “From bar mitzvah on,” Perelman says, “I had longed to qualify as a Jewish Robert Louis Stevenson,” and this thought, by means of a logic which may escape you for a moment, pitches him into Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps:

The Highland fling I envisioned would be composed of toasted scones, salmon fishing, a stag drive, and the likelihood that I might be handcuffed to a latter-day Madeleine Carroll, combing the moors for a master spy minus his fingertip.

Actually (actually?) Perelman’s Scotland is full of places like Auchundvay and Lackadaisy, not to mention Ichvaisnit Grange and a couple of castles called Voss Tutmendaw and Manor Sheviss. Perelman is fairly hard-nosed about Israel—“What magic, what ingenuity and manpower it had taken to re-create Grossinger’s, the Miami Fontainebleau, and the Concord Hotel on a barren strand in the Near East!”—and rather sloppy about the Cameron Highlands—“The air was bracing, the scenery spectacular, the vegetation, a mixture of tropical and mountain foliage, lush and sparkling.” Fortunately, Perelman takes himself in hand at this point, and whistles up a firm of Kuala Lumpur vintners called Lush & Sparkling Ltd. But it was a near thing, and the book winds down into a rather feeble encounter with Gauguin, alive and panhandling in Papeete, and a view of Hollywood which Perelman has done much better, several times, before. The Jewish Robert Louis Stevenson can always turn a nifty trick or two, but this time, once out of Scotland, he is obviously taking it easy.

Writing of Perelman, Dorothy Parker said there must be criticism in humor. It’s just as well, perhaps, that no one has said there must be humor in criticism, but Perelman’s work is criticism, in the special, literary sense which makes criticism a record of acts of reading. Perelman writes almost exclusively in response to things he has read—even his travels are bewitched by (usually defeated) expectations acquired in books. He appears to live in a library plentifully stocked both with classics and with any old rubbish, and a suspicious-sounding character who calls himself Sidney Namlerep describes Perelman as a “scavenger,” a “literary ghoul whose exploits would horrify a Scottish medical school.” What Perelman has done, these many years, is to keep alive, in a speedy prose which can do almost anything it likes, a love of literature and a love of junk, and a clear sense of the distinction between them. This is no mean critical feat, especially when you’re trying to pay the rent and make terrible jokes at the same time.

This Issue

April 6, 1978