S. J. Perelman

(1904—1979) American humorist and writer

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US humorist. His stories in The New Yorker constitute his important work and have assured him a place among the leading twentieth-century writers of humour.

Born in Brooklyn, Perelman attended Brown University and began writing for the university magazine. Among his undergraduate friends was the writer Nathanael West, whose sister Perelman later married. He graduated in 1925 and published humorous pieces in a number of magazines. Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge (1929), his first book, brought immediate recognition and introduced the extravagant comic style that made him famous. Accepting an offer from Hollywood, Perelman worked there for a time writing scripts and jokes for the Marx Brothers films, but from 1934 he was associated with The New Yorker and almost all of his short prose pieces were first published in that magazine. He also collaborated successfully on films and plays – with his wife on the film Ambush (1939) and the play The Night Before Christmas (1941) and with Ogden Nash (1902–71) on the comedy One Touch of Venus (1943). For years Perelman lived in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Seeking a change of scene for his work, he moved to London in the 1970s, but returned to America before his death.

Perelman's very literary style has been described as surrealist and absurdist and comparisons have been made with Poe and Joyce. A faultless command of the vernacular combines with parody, puns, jokes, and all manner of linguistic play in wild lampoons and fantasies. The pieces are often constructed around short excerpts from newspapers, which lead into sketches or playlets in which the wise-cracking author is usually defeated by some absurdity of modern life. Among his many collections are Strictly from Hunger (1937), Look Who's Talking (1940), Crazy Like a Fox (1944), Keep It Crisp (1946), Westward Ha! (1948), Listen to the Mocking Bird (1949), The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1953), The Road to Miltown; or, Under the Spreading Atrophy (1957), The Rising Gorge (1961), and Baby, It's Cold Inside (1970).

Subjects: Literature.

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Works by S. J. Perelman

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