Saturday, May 2, 2009

S.J. Perelman

This post appeared originally at Lugubrious Drollery on February 9, 2009.

S.J. Perelman at his office in Greenwich Village
Date taken: October 26, 1961
Photographer: Carl Mydans
From the Google Life Magazine Image Archives

This morning I was listening to recent podcasts of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac on the way to work. February 1 was the birthday of comic genius S.J. Perelman, who, among other things, wrote for the Marx Brothers. The sketch of Perelman which Keillor read on his birthday was so good, I'm quoting it here in its entirety:
It's the birthday of humorist S.J. Perelman, born Sidney Joseph Perelman in Brooklyn, New York (1904). His father was a Russian immigrant who tried to make a living as a poultry farmer. Perelman said his father believed "that if you had a few acres and a chicken farm there was no limit to your possible wealth. I grew up with and have since retained the keenest hatred of chickens."
At this point, alone in my truck, I laughed out loud. Having started life as a third-generation duck farmer, I loved Perelman's statement. Keillor goes on:
He worked as a cartoonist when he was in college, but he switched to writing humorous essays, which he published in The New Yorker. His first collection of essays, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, came out in 1929. Groucho Marx wrote him a letter that said: "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

Groucho Marx persuaded Perelman to move to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but he hated Hollywood. So he went back to writing essays for The New Yorker. His many essay collections include The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966).

One of his essays begins: "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

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