His generation of American humorists, many associated with The New Yorker – Thurber, Benchley, Parker and the rest – has not fared well. First alcohol and politics, and later our radically altered tastes in humor – the least stable and quantifiable of human qualities – took their toll. I started reading Perelman when I was about twelve, the perfect age. His titles alone cracked me up – Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, Strictly from Hunger, The Swiss Family Perelman – and his highly mannered prose seemed clever and hip in an old-fashioned way, a rich impasto of Yiddishisms, puns (“The Song Is Endless, But the Malady Lingers On”), parodically elegant palaver “(button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor”) and Hollywood jive. With Perelman, it was all about the language, and it helped that he wrote for the Marx Brothers in the nineteen-thirties and appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in the sixties and seventies. You sometimes sense when reading Perelman that entire sentences and feuilletons (his term, of dubious irony, for his short prose pieces) exist solely because he savored a word and wanted to find a good home for it. Take a look at this sample from “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Enough” (Acres and Pains, 1947). How many readers of the May 8, 1943, issue of The New Yorker parsed the parody and Yiddish:
“For timeliness, melodrama, and a good old-fashioned concupiscence like Mother used to make, I haven’t met its equal since the Decameron. The principals in this droll tale are two: John Craig. `tall, masculine, tweedy…a big overgrown Newfoundland pup, with his rough tawny hair and steady brown eyes,’ and Judy, a zäftick [now, conventionally, zaftig – but the umlaut is funny] little proposition bent on bringing him to heel.”
Boys grow up (most of them) and their tastes evolve in unexpected ways. P.G. Wodehouse, whom I started reading around the same time as Perelman, still makes me laugh. So do Kingsley Amis and early Waugh, and Thomas Berger and Stanley Elkin, but Perelman’s humor, which once seemed highly mannered, now reads like pure mannerism. The leering, kvetching and self-preening take over. He makes gesture toward being funny but his heart isn’t in it. His pieces read like “college humor,” in the old, compulsively cute sense – literally sophomoric. As he told his Paris Review interviewer in 1963: “…let me assure you I don't sit in the chimney corner cackling over what I've written.” Nor, sadly, do I. Perelman was born on this date, Feb. 1, in 1904, and died Oct. 17, 1979.