“S.J. Perelman Was a Master of Comedy. His Work Still Delivers Laughs.”

From a Washington Post interview by Donald Liebenson of Adam Gopnik headlined “S.J. Perelman was a master of comedy. Nearly a century later, his work still delivers laughs.”:

There was a time when America’s greatest writers, wits and humorists were known by their last names: Parker, Benchley, Thurber and, breaking the comedy rule of three, Perelman.

S.J. Perelman, who once described himself as “button-cute, rapier-keen, cucumber-cool and gall-bitter,” wrote humorous pieces primarily for the New Yorker. But for Marx Brothers obsessives, he earned a place in the comedy pantheon as the co-writer of two of the team’s best comedies, “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Horse Feathers” (1932).

Perelman is the subject of an expansive and essential new anthology, published by Library of America and edited by New Yorker writer and Perelman aficionado Adam Gopnik.

“One of the truths about Perelman is, I think, he was the most gifted pure writer in American English in the 20th century,” Gopnik said. “He could do things with language that no one else could remotely do.”…

It is a sad cultural irony that at a time when any book or film can be summoned with a click, such literary titans as Perelman have become a niche taste. Gopnik has a glass half-full take on this. “Our society is very large,” he said. “Even if 1 percent of American people have any idea who Perelman is, that’s a lot of people.”

Q: I am among those who were introduced to S.J. Perelman via the Marx Brothers. What was your gateway?

A: Like you, I had a Marx Brothers conversion experience in the early ’70s. I was also, though, a New Yorker reader by that point, so I’m not sure which came first….

Q: What do you respond to in his writing?

A: His work is very much writing about reading, and as an addictive reader, I immediately responded to that aspect of it. I love his ear for cliche and his feelings for the absurd, but I love the way he ran together all the styles of American vulgarity — advertising and Hollywood — with what was clearly an advanced literary sensibility and taste. Perelman is certainly a benevolent angel in that collision between lowbrow and highbrow….

Q: How do you recommend readers approach this anthology — read it front to back or dip in and out?

A: I’m a dipper. I wanted to edit this anthology with the pleasure principle. There’s nothing in it I feel is a duty to read, but everything that is a joy to read. It’s meant to be more like a day at the beach, where you go in and out of the waves.

Q: You’ve included the essentials, such as “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer,” as well as lesser-known gems. Do you have a personal favorite?

A: If I had to pick out a favorite, it would be the “Cloudland Revisited” pieces, which are all about him revisiting the penny dreadful books or silent movies of his childhood. Those pieces are irresistible because there is such affection for the dreck seen from the view of someone whose tastes have become more sophisticated.

Q: There are pearls on every page. Do you have a favorite?

A: I rarely pick up a copy of [his anthologies] “The Ill-Tempered Clavichord” or “The Road to Miltown,” which are my two absolute favorites, without coming upon a sentence that I find irresistible. I’ll give you one from “Scenario,” which is a virtuoso, astounding piece of pure writing. It’s one long, surrealist movie pitch meeting: “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.”

Q: There’s a wonderful line in one of the letters you included in the anthology. Perelman is talking about some of the top screenwriters from Hollywood’s golden era. He writes, “These were the Roman candles, the Catherine wheels of that epoch of movie writing, and their names are now writ in water.” The same could be said for the wits and humorists that preceded him, such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner.

A: One of the functions of Library of America is to try and preserve the canon of American literature. It’s always changing and expanding, but Perelman belongs there. He is one of the great masters….I find Perelman irresistibly funny in his grouchy misanthropic way….

Q: Woody Allen’s early New Yorker pieces in the 1970s had a Perelman influence. Do you see anyone now carrying Perelman’s torch forward?

A: Veronica Geng has pushed Perelman’s style in the direction of abstract art. The Coen brothers are big Perelman fans and there is a Perelman feeling in something like “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Big Lebowski.” It’s still out there.

Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.

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