107 Years of S.J. Perelman

Posted by Jason Diamond

The oldest known person on Earth died yesterday.  If S.J. Perelman hadn’t died in 1979, he would be 107-years-old today — and still wouldn’t be the oldest living person on the planet.  He’d be about seven years younger than the person who took over for the former record holder.

All of that is unnecessary preface, but for some reason, seemed important.

If you aren’t familiar with S.J. Perelman, you’ve missed out on something special; he’s sort of a god in the realm of humorists.  He helped write the scripts for some of The Marx Brothers greatest films, was one of the first people to realize that dropping Yiddish words into sentences sounded funny, was related by marriage to Nathaniel West, and helped turn Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 into a success.  He also probably influenced everybody from Woody Allen to Andy Borowitz — and any other New Yorker humor writer that came after that.  The artist, Al Hirschfeld, said that Perelman “probably had the most extensive and arcane vocabulary of any English-speaking person ever.”

I found this Time Magazine piece from 2004 while looking for Perelman on the internet.  It sort of echos the sentiment that Perelman is currently one of the great many unappreciated talents, ripe for a grand re-introduction into the general consciousness.


  1. The Hirschfeld quote, and your note about Perelman’s use of Yiddish, are twin sides of the same coin that I once thought about and then forgot (happens a lot). Perelman puffed up the diction of his narrators to absurd heights to improve the comic effect of using Jewish humor to knock them back down. But his extraordinary mastery of English is also interesting in itself as part of the Jewish American rise to prominence, and the self-awareness of the climb. His great, “No Starch in the Dhoti, S’il Vous Plait” is a masterpiece of this kind of comedy (the story title alone deserves discussion). And Woody Allen paid brilliant homage to that epistolary Perelman story in his own “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers.” Cheers.