Cyril Connolly once observed that even P.G. Wodehouse might have profited from being told which of his books was better than which. But nobody wants to review a humorist. Such notices as the funnymen get are generally either facetious, because the reviewer dreads seeming pompous, or vaguely eulogistic. “Another whatnot by the inimitable…need one say more?”
Whether criticism ever really helps anybody, it can, by its sheer mass, make a writer seem impressive, like stuffing in a dress shirt. So it is sobering to realize that a writer of the late S.J. Perelman’s eminence probably went through life without any serious criticism at all, unless I’ve missed something in German.
Perhaps it just can’t be done. Humor may simply be the Great Unexplainable—to be judged precisely for its quotient of unexplainability. A bad joke can be taken apart and put together again like a watch, until you learn the trick and can open your own watch factory. But the parts of a good joke tell you nothing. Take Perelman. “Ever since the days of Buffon the naturalist,” he writes, “it has gone without saying that the first thing you do on seeing a buffalo is shout and wave your arms and hat. But this isn’t good enough for a certain pig in Wapping Old Stairs. No need to mention names.” And so into one of his incalculable flights. There is no danger of Henny Youngman stealing this kind of thing, or learning from it. (Looking up the exact lines, I find that I have actually run two quotes together; Perelman’s tonal effects can drift in memory into arresting new patterns. Youngman’s probably cannot.)
The unexplainability factor may be the best we can do with Perelman right now. Anyway it’s a start. People who came to Perelman late commonly had difficulty understanding the zeal of earlier converts and, by chance, I could see why; I myself read his books in the wrong order and underwent the strange experience of being somewhat tired of him before I became a fan. A bit too mechanical, I thought of his later stuff.
To my mind almost all his best work is crammed into one volume—Crazy Like a Fox, first published in 1944 but spanning his oeuvre from 1931 to then. This was an awkward belief to hold during his later lifetime, because one didn’t want to go about droning, “Don’t read his latest.” Yet it might have done his reputation a service, as it might many a slipped writer’s, and it should certainly be said now.
Humorists are prisoners of their period, and when that runs down they tend to run down with it. Vulgarity was preeminently Perelman’s subject, and the Thirties hold a special place in the history of that substance; not that vulgarity hadn’t been around forever, bless it, but it had never seemed so unavoidable and so charmless. Mass-produced by semiliterates in the mills of Hollywood and whatever they called Madison Avenue in those days, vulgarity had lost all folk quality and flavor in the interests of reaching everyone—and not just reaching but socking and bamming and wowing them. It was a shattering imposition on a sensitive man.
And Perelman was that, to the point of parody. By study and inclination, he was a dandy to the mustache-tips, very fit company for his brother-in-law Nathanael West. His reading was so extensive that just looking up his references could give one a pretty good education, and looking up his tailor could do the rest. So imagine this glass of fashion suddenly being thrust to work in the abbatoirs, the very stock-yards where culture was butchered: Hollywood itself. “Strictly from Hunger” is the name of his piece about that and it informs the whole of Crazy Like a Fox, which is a literary man’s revenge, primed with Joyce and more Frenchmen than you can shake a stick at, on commercial culture from advertising to magazine prose and back to film-writing. “My arms are so tired from flailing these cows that I can hardly mix my pigments,” is his version of the Hollywood Gaugin, at a time when studios actually wrote to guys like Thackeray asking to see their latest.
This was Perelman’s blacking factory period, when the fastidious soul first encounters the lower depths, and it cannot be repeated although it can be prolonged. Perelman did not stop when he reached Bucks County in the late Thirties (he was probably still looking over his shoulder), but for him mass vulgarity could now be avoided; one had to go looking for it. And inevitably his crotchets became those of the rich: hotel accommodations, venal tailors, the discontents of travel. Since these do not really amount to much, Perelman had to waste much breath in pumping them up, and the reader often wound up on his (the reader’s) back.
His literal latest, The Last Laugh, should perhaps be read when you get round to it, but only in the glow of Crazy Like a Fox. There are several new pieces that could almost have been written by the same man—most notably one called “Scram you made the Pants too Short,” in which he rounds on the Bloomsbury racket in his old oblique way. Victoria Glendinning, in a book of shavings and nail-parings from that set, had innocently asked, “And why did E.M. Forster wear his trousers three inches too short?” Suddenly Perelman is up and raging. “For whom were the trousers too short?” he snarls; and in no time we find him whipping around London in a taxi, grilling those inevitable tailors and plainclothesmen, until he tracks down what appears to be Victoria Glendinning wearing the pants herself.
Well, you had to be there. The ingredients are familiar, especially the mustache-bristling fury, and the plot twists in which everything comes unstuck—setting, point of view, meaning itself—except the pants. Also, the phrasing is fresher and less contrived than in much of his later work; there is no Swiss watch about it. “He never intended that [the pants] were used by the author of Howards End, A Passage to India, Two Cheers for Democracy, and Aspects of the Novel?” “Never by word or gesture.”
In some of the lesser pieces, one senses the master shying away from a quaint phrase because he may have used it before, or something just like it. There are more flat lines in The Last Laugh than there used to be. Perelman’s verbal resources were never near exhausted, but he had to dig for them now, instead of just tapping the ground.
Having formed this theory, I already find the books funnier than I did, but always in a reminiscent sense: they remind me of Perelman. Since Perelman’s decline (if that’s what it was, and not just a tired reader talking) was that American rarity, a decline not eased along by drink or megalomania—he avoided megalomania like the plague—one has to conclude that there was a limit built into the very thing he was doing, and that it was time to try something else.
Hence the autobiographical essays tacked onto the ending of The Last Laugh. These are too skimpy (forty-five pages) to tell us much, but what they do tell is not encouraging. Years of writing the Mock-Ornate had left him almost as ill at ease with the straight sentence as W.C. Fields. “He [Nathanael West] openly disliked the swollen dithyrambs and Whitmanesque fervors of orgiasts like Thomas Wolfe, and the clumsy, unselective naturalism of the proletarian school typified by James Farrell repelled him equally”—that’s quite a swollen dithyramb in its own right, reminding one of what’s supposed to happen to children who make faces. Perelman’s prose was distorted like a pitcher’s elbow from unnatural use.
Nor was he altogether happy, on this evidence, with autobiographical material as such. Tom Wolfe claims that the use of real names was just what the doctor ordered for Perelman, as presumably for everyone else. But real names only inhibited Perelman: he was much too courtly to say what he really thought of, for instance, the Marx Brothers, which was that they were cruel vulgarians whom he was well rid of. His stories about them in The Last Laugh poke at this, but do not ignite. Likewise his account of Nathanael West is so polite as to be almost impersonal. A gentleman doesn’t peach on his family or friends. And one is reminded, pleasantly, of how old-fashioned the essential Perelman was. But that’s all. Hardly a literary breakthrough.
The two examples Wolfe cites to build his case are certainly the best: icy vignettes of Herman Mankiewicz and Michael Todd, who were apparently beyond the reach of even Perelman’s literary courtesy. I would argue mildly that he had done these two in essence many times before, without naming names; but the names are useful in grounding Perelman’s fantasies for just a moment in the harsh reality that nurtured them, because his years of bondage to the Hollywood monster-people coincided with his great flowering as a wit.
It wasn’t only the shock of cheap work that did it, I think, but something more personal. The one kind of Jew he did not want to be was king out there, so Sid made of himself (subconsciously or no) an alternate statement, which gave a drive and direction to the often aimless business of comedy.
His first book, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, had been superior college humor, no more, no less, slavishly indebted to Benchley like most college humor, although certain of Perelman’s later tricks can be found in embryo. “He soon began to chafe under restraint. The chafing had been barely finished and the saltines spread with butter,” etc., would evolve into, “With a blow I sent him groveling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh-tasting grovels.” Likewise “Captain Havoc Ellis of the bomb squad” becomes “my brokers, Whitelipped & Trembling.” The straining to be funny or die is gone, to be replaced in Crazy Like a Fox by a sort of bemused muttering or dream-talk. Several of the pieces in Dawn Ginsbergh are done in drag, which may or may not be significant.1 Otherwise Perelman’s first book is indistinguishable from so much other high-spirited, hit-or-miss comedy that youngbloods tend to give up shortly after graduation.
From his account of those years, it sounds as if Perelman came close to giving it up himself out of brute poverty, but managed to pry a jacket quote out of Groucho Marx which led eventually to Hollywood, and enough money to keep going. For all its sins, Hollywood probably saved Perelman as a humorist—a debt which curiously did not make him feel any warmer about the place.
Hollywood proceeded to rub his Ivy League nose in it, and give him his best subject. The Marxes, who should have been his natural allies, and who perfectly rendered one half of his personality,2 revolted him almost as much as the moguls. Although he would later search the world for other gorillas, and better incongruities, he never found anything to match Hollywood in the Thirties. It was like first love. Although he whored after bizarre settings for the rest of his life, he could never recapture the shock of that first encounter with savagery. It is no accident that the part of his memoirs that works is set in Hollywood. He felt like a kid again.
As he sits in Hunt Stromberg’s office being asked to mull seriously a combination of Arms and The Man and The Chocolate Soldier, the years roll off Perelman as they do in horror stories told by older people. He would never be so vulnerable after that, though he tried. His later persona was often out of place and at a loss, but you can’t fake humiliation. He was more worldly now and, like it or not, celebrated, and his work became more cerebral, less felt. His later pieces seemed like intellectual puzzles solved rather than cries from the spleen. Yet the old Perelman was always likely to flare up, if only for a paragraph or so, and one saw that his powers hadn’t failed one whit, only his situation. Trying to write for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald is hard to duplicate in real life.
It’s tough to tell where his memoirs would have gone had he lived. From the way he dawdled over them it seems possible that they wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Of all the names that inhibited him, his own came first. He had used it so often as a comic device that he wasn’t about to spill any serious beans about it. And writing about oneself was just one more vulgarity. So all we might have got is more leftover anecdotes—ones that he hadn’t already teased into fictions.
Since humor criticism is still in its infancy, and almost bound to remain so, one can only bump into things at this point and ask what they mean. One evening I mentioned to Perelman that a friend of mine was convinced that Evelyn Waugh had no sense of humor. “That’s right, that’s right,” said Sid enthusiastically.
This was not, I’m convinced, a routine case of genius sticking out its tongue. If one could completely understand what Perelman meant by humor, one would doubtless see exactly why he couldn’t let Waugh in. Such understanding might also mark an advance—the first and only advance as far as I know—in humor criticism; but I’m not quite sure what one would do with it. There are some things, as Boris Karloff used to say, that it is better not to know. “Frederica and I”—in case you were wondering how that buffalo piece came out—“spat reflectively on his peonies and set our faces toward Ostable and the setting sun.” I think perhaps we should just let it go at that.
November 5, 1981
There is actually a charmer named Connie Perelman (no relation to Abou ben Perelman, also cited). That kind of thing. ↩
Perelman’s role in Marx Brothers history has been somewhat exaggerated. He worked, with collaborators, on two films: Monkey Business and Horse-feathers. However the tendency to identify his work with the Marxes’ is spiritually correct. “If no small boy smeared with honey can be found, it may be necessary to take an ordinary small boy and smear him, which should be a pleasure.” “Crazy Like a Fox.” Who but Groucho could have done justice to these stately sentiments? ↩