S.J. Perelman in his time moved more book reviewers to confess incontinence than any other author in the West. While not myself finding this appropriate as a measuring stick, I don’t mean to sneer. Indeed, I see now why Antony wanted to bury Caesar, but not to praise him. The task is awesome for reasons neatly captured by a friend of mine who said, when it looked as if I might actually meet the man, “Gee, not only does he know S.J. Perelman—he is S.J. Perelman.”
Just so, That Old Gang O’ Mine is one book that won’t be heretically compared to Perelman: it is Perelman. The book includes about a third of his postgraduate output between 1926 and 1931, both cartoons and writing, before he began publishing in The New Yorker, but there’s nothing quaint or dusty about it. It may well be Perelman in embryo, but that’s just the point: we get to see what the wild overgrowth of his youthful imagination looked like before he took up topiary work.
I once asked him if his parents thought he was funny, and he answered by saying that as a boy he’d come across a caption in a book of photographs—“The Herring Fleet at Wick”—that sent him into gales of laughter. When enough time had passed with no letup, Mrs. Perelman asked him to leave the house. His early work, he said, had had much the same effect on him, but as he got older it grew harder and harder to bust his own gussets. That Old Gang, in its high silliness, its gay and manic exuberance, is a hefty dose of what, in those pre-income-tax days, could still tickle him.
Michael Wood has said of Perelman’s grown-up work that it was criticism “in the special, literary sense which makes criticism a record of acts of reading.” In the period covered by That Old Gang, Perelman would appear to have been reading a great deal of the kind of trash about which he never complained and never apologized. Yet these short takes are, by and large, not really criticisms, since their point of departure is usually writing (Victorian “horsehair-sofa locutions,” as Richard Marschall says in his foreword) that is already too overblown to require attack. That Old Gang is like a book of exercises in which Perelman systematically overpaints the purple prose of an era until it comes out a flaming chartreuse.
One by one we tiptoed cautiously from the room, leaving Ives Bamberger alone to plight his throat with Velma Watkins. Somewhere in the glen the poignant sweetness of an avocado sounded high above the noice of the grackles. The skirling of the war-pipes was hashed; the spears of the Bamberger and Watkins clans had fallen before the bow of Cupid, the roguish God of Love.
Part of the workout involves trying on as many masks as possible. If the best actors are slightly androgynous (says Olivier), it doesn’t hurt humorists any either. Here Perelman is not just nimble-gendered (from Dr. Fritz von Perelman, the renowned Austrian hair surgeon “before whose feet the dandruff world has fallen,” to Thyra Samovar Perelman), but multi-specied. He can enter the soul of a meat knife or a chicken with equipoise.
“Confessions of a Baby Chick,” to pick more or less at random, begins straight-forwardly: “We were sixty-four girls and eleven boys, and Mamma, who was a No. 43-B model Schwartz-Feinberg incubator, was very vague about Papa…. She had a hard time of it raising us and it took plenty of grit—over five pails, I learned subsequently…. When the time came for me to enter Bryn Mawr….”
The coed pullet joins a sorority where she shares a room with five other good-looking Buff Orpingtons. Soon they attend their first dance,
to which even our Kaffir servants were invited. It was a wonderful moonlit night and the garden, with its myriad twinkling lanterns, was a magic isle set apart for me and my gigolo, Balthazar Siegel. As Balthazar held me in his arms and made proposals, I thought that I would swoon. Suddenly I heard Mate Starbuck cry out from the ship’s waist.
“Stern for all your lives!” shouted Starbuck. “The dam is broken and the waters are coming down from Lahore!”
In the confusion that followed, Balthazar and I slipped from the halyards into the captain’s jollyboat and cast adrift the painter. We gave him brushes, a palette, and turpentine, and today that little boy is Maxfield Parrishberg. Sometimes I wish we had not been so liberal with our art materials.
It’s Mary Lou Retton doing the compulsory figures of speech, without her frozen rictus at the end.
I recently heard an English writer touted as giving the “gift of unsettling laughter,” which sounds to me a little close to straight discomfiture. Surrealism, which stamps many of the pieces in this book, is often unsettling, but it’s seldom this much fun. There’s no queasiness here, because it’s immediately obvious that the only constant is rapid change, and we’ll never step twice onto the same level of discourse.
In “Neo-Einstein Stirs Savants!” the editor Conrad Gooly interviews Prof. Motley Throng for the purpose of getting a statement from him about his new photographic discovery.
“Oh, you mean my apparatus for developing the film on teeth,” replied the Professor, draining his malted milk and giving me a vigorous egg nod. “Well, it all goes back to one night when I was jilted by Irma Voltaire. You knew her, of course?” I murmured assent. Who indeed had not known this regal creature, this woman of the magnificent tawny eyes! Even among mere youths like myself tales were told of this splendid charmer’s animal magnetism.
“I had offered her everything I possessed,” resumed the Professor. “My shooting preserves in Scotland, my raspberry preserves in Wales, and my candied quinces in Wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania. You knew Pennsylvania, of course?” I murmured assent. Who indeed had not known this splendid state, rich in natural mineral oils and untold lard mines? Even among mere youths like myself tales were told of Pennsylvania, the Mother of Presidents.
One sees why the writing of Monkey Business was, at one level at least, child’s play.
Of course there is more than just the cross-dressing up in other styles and genres. There are Perelman’s early ventures in uncontrolled appellations: Ernest Void (interviewed about his four-day fall from the Chrysler Building), the Bull (Montana) Courier-Intelligencer-Tageblatt-Times, the Lug City Plasterers’ and Pig-Drivers’ National Bank, the Practical Flagellator’s Trust Company of Illinois, and the Fates—Lachesis, Clothos, Atropos, Malevinsky, Driscoll, and O’Brien. The titles, too, have already ripened and bolted, and are as compulsively inviting as the day they were coined: “Do Your Christmas Necking Now,” “The Grit of the Peagraves,” “Chefs Chafe as Steak Smugglers Flood Turkish Baths,” “Rare Bit of Coolidgeana Bobs Up; Quickly Bobs Down Again,” “Eppis Bars Boorish Bike Fans as Coaster Brakes Roar in Metropolitan Opera.” That still leaves plenty of sui generis stuff that begs categorizing: “We have no use here for these ‘Bolshevists,’ and, anyway, how would you like your own sister to be nationalized?”
Although this is all recognizable as inimitably Perelman, the book begins with three pieces that are quite strict renditions of one of his own early masters. As he acknowledged many times, he schooled himself by shamelessly copying George Ade, Lardner, and the rest to a point he considered actionable. Ade’s “fables in slang” appear here as “Fairy Tales for Tired Clubmen,” but they are no longer rooted in the choice Midwestern slang of the late 1800s. Ade’s purpose in part was to celebrate and preserve the fertile variety of a region’s idiom, and he accomplished it so artfully that to the fan, his work never seems dated. But in rereading him recently I came across, on a single small page, at least ten words or expressions that aren’t in The Dictionary of American Slang. Although Perelman’s work is known for containing popular allusions that are fast becoming as obscure as Ade’s, they’re not particularly prevalent in this book and, as Marschall says, “a concordance for his props is hardly necessary.” These fables honor not so much Ade the archaeologist as simply Ade the deadpan humorist.
“The Sleeping Beauty” begins:
Now here is a swell yarn we found at the bottom of a box of iron filings and we said right away, we owe it to our dear public to show it to them. Once upon a time there was a king and queen named Morton Steinberg and his wife Fannie. Morton and Fannie had everything they wanted, even an electric fan in the hot weather. They were both kind and wise and their subjects were fairly daffy over them. But there was one thing they lacked: the patter of baby feet. They made up their minds that if they ever had a child they would name it Shirley, even if it was a boy. Well, one day the king came home and found the little wife tatting a pair of bootees, so he tiptoes over to her and then there was a slow fadeout with blurred sub-titles and an art decoration of a stork carrying a baby.
Traditionally, the old fairy doesn’t get invited to the christening but comes anyway, and in this case predicts that Shirley will die by cutting her hand on a gin bottle. Her parents duly invent Prohibition, “and it was very successful (remember, this is a fairy tale).” But Shirley gets it in the end when she accepts a hooker of Gordon’s from an old lady in the attic. A hundred years later she is discovered, still snoozing, by a prince, Dave Rifkowitz.
She looked even prettier than when she fell asleep, because she had had her face lifted in the meanwhile. So he woke her up and showed her his credentials and she said she was crazy about him already and did he have the ring with him. And after he said yes, she told him to wake up all the people in the castle while she ran around the corner and had her hair waved. And then they got married and had twelve children, all girls and one homelier than the other. The lesson here is that one should leave sleeping dogs lie.
Puss in Boots and The Frog Prince are retold to similar effect.
Although the other pieces don’t have the structural tidiness that goes with the fable form, they do have equally neat tag lines. In Perelman’s later work, as even William Shawn conceded, “Sid had trouble with endings.” Here, where each exercise is required to do little more than career amusingly around the page, the more irrelevant the finish the better: “The heritage of the hassenpheffer warlock had come true.”
As with Ade, so with John Held, Jr. That Old Gang includes more than one hundred original Perelman graphics—staged photos, linoleum-block prints (or drawn imitations of them), drawings, collages. The prints themselves are deft imitations of Held’s earlier wood- and linocuts that drew on stereotypes of the Gay Nineties. But where Held achieves his effects through exaggeration (THE DAYS BEYOND RECALL—PIERCING THE EARS), Perelman achieves his by using the caption to invert the sentiment, sometimes in a manner that anticipates Edward Gorey (MUMSEY TELL ME ABOUT WEIRD LOVE BEGGED HARRY). Others succeed by simple incongruity: a clichéd image of a Victorian woman being corseted by her maid is captioned, HER FIRST COTILLION WITH DASHING BRUCE GINSBERG.*
Underneath all the drawings and their captions run small paragraphs that are completely unrelated. These are microminispoofs of corny vaudeville gags and anything he hasn’t hit on elsewhere:
Here’s a request number for Miss Barbara Blahblah, 67 Blahblah Street, Blahblah, who claims she’s a chronic sufferer from blahblah, and now just try and sue me for that! A couple of deaf-mutes were chatting. “Was Helen angry last night?” asked Melvin. “Angry?” replied Spelvin. “The words she used simply blistered her fingers!” Thus is the silver chord broken and the pitcher loosed at the well.
Apart from the bastard woodcuts, there are many examples of Perelman’s more original cartooning. It’s easy to see why he gave himself to writing, but given the evidence, it seems odd he didn’t keep his drawing hand in just for his own pleasure. (I did once see him abstractedly doodle a caricature of John Gardner and his pipe, while he carped about Gardner’s essay on “moral fiction.”)
Taking the pieces and graphics together, one is reminded of what seems a hallmark of funny writing of that era, but one that became distinctly Perelman’s own once the era had passed. What appears to be his utter confidence in his readers and his material suggests that he never worried whether it was “accessible.” Peter de Vries, borrowing the attribute, says of Perelman’s life (although I’m afraid it only describes his work) that it was “one long revel in the felicities of language.” When writers submit to the fact that the most common ground is television, the reveling is apt to get less felicitous.
The Times once rejected a piece that included commonplace citations from Ecclesiastes on the grounds that “the average cab-driver would not know what Ecclesiastes was.” Beyond an ignorance of cabbies, this betrays a patronizing fear that somebody out there won’t geddit (never mind what he’ll never get in the “Home” section). Perelman never worried about this nor did he let cr/editors make him worry. This has something to do with why his work is so exhilarating: you never get the feeling that he’s about to pander to your dimness.
The editor of That Old Gang O’ Mine is a professional student of the history of cartooning, with several books on the subject to his credit, and he has laid out this one himself with great success: the artwork, while standing on its own, also serves to break up the richness of the pieces and keep you from scarfing too many at once. In manuscript, the book was rejected twenty-three times before Morrow agreed to take the “risk.” It is to be hoped that a second third of Perelman’s work from this period (as good as the first, according to Marschall) will also see the light.
November 8, 1984
Instead of using Jewish names (or words) as jokes in and of themselves at the expense of the Jews (as did vaudeville), Perelman often inserts them where they “don’t belong” (Beaumont and Fletcherstein, the Cutlass and Blintzes pub, etc.): besides being funny, it’s an effectively needling antidote. ↩