Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Sketches and Satires by S. J. Perelman

Source of book: I own this.


I have been a big fan of the Library of America for many years - the first book my wife ever gave me as a present was the complete Robert Frost, which was the beginning of a collection which is approaching 100 volumes. The books are excellent quality, and fairly priced, if not exactly cheap. This book is from that series, and was one that I discovered as a result of following their new releases. (Also, it was a gift from my sister-in-law and husband, who have great taste in books.) 


So, who was S. J. Perelman? He isn’t exactly a household name these days, but he was well respected as a screenwriter (he wrote for the Marx Brothers among others - and won an Academy Award) and as a writer of short humorous pieces for The New Yorker. He is considered an influence on the next generation of satirical writers, from Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor on down. He was also the brother-in-law of author Nathaniel West (who I intend to read next year.) And, as far as other trivia: Perelman was largely responsible for the success of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The book got tepid reviews, and wasn’t selling. However, when Perelman was asked in an interview if he had read anything funny lately, he recommended Catch-22, and sales skyrocketed. One can perhaps see some similarities in the surrealist style of both authors, as well as the darkly dry sense of humor. 


Sketches and Satires is a collection of 62 of Perelman’s short comedy pieces, selected by Adam Gopnik, and drawn from his various magazine submissions over his career. To even try to describe the scope of the topics would be futile, but some of the best are satires of Hollywood culture, Ugly Americans abroad, and his “Cloudland Revisited” series, where he revisits movies and books he loved as a naive young man, but has since, shall we say, reconsidered a bit. Throughout, his humor is deadpan, dry, absurd, and full of cultural references. 


He resembles Groucho Marx at times (although he and Groucho hated each other), and you can definitely imagine reading the sketches in Groucho’s voice. The sheer absurdity is matched only by his brilliance in parodying American cultural foibles. There are a few references to the Marx Brothers in the book, but later in life, Perelman distanced himself, and didn’t want that association listed in his accomplishments. This is a shame, because both were geniuses in their field. So many of the sketches in the book seem designed for the troupe. 


Even though humor tends to be dated, I was surprised how many things he mentions are still part of our cultural consciousness. Particularly for those of us who read old books and watch old movies. 


I found this book delightful, laugh out loud funny at times, and a reminder of just how good The New Yorker was for so many years. (I mean, just look at the major authors who had stories published there, the cartoons, and the fact that both Perelman and James Thurber wrote for it for decades.) 


I made notes about my favorite lines. It is impossible to do them justice without the context of the whole sketch, but I think the lines themselves can at least give an idea of the wit. 


The first is from “Puppets of Passion,” a hilarious satire of upper class courting as a literary genre. I thought this exchange was great. 


“Dawn, stop making moues and get dressed. Remember, time and tide waits for no man.”

“What the heck has the ____ ____ tide got to do with it?” inquired Dawn. “What do I look like, an oyster-dredge?”


Some of the pieces are literal sketches - written in play form. Others, like this next one, are written as if describing a musical. In this case, based on reptile collecting in the jungle. Except this hunt is in “the lower ramp of Grand Central.” The whole thing is surreal and totally bizarre. Like this, on the attempts to catch pythons, starting with coating two members of the expedition named Leeds with honey.


Lieut. Weinbloom’s entry in his log for that day reads: “Gave the pythons lots of good Leeds but still without results. Perhaps we are wrong in using traps and snares? Will try muted woodwinds, tympani, and oboes to-morrow.” But the oboes did not do the work either, for it is notorious that oboes never do work. That, kiddies, is why they are oboes.


Other sketches have musical jokes too, which are always appreciated.


I will just mention “Scenario,” which is a sendup of pretty much every movie trope of the time. Since it is four pages of essentially run-on sentence, a quote would be impossible. But it is a hilarious read. 


Perelman’s send-up of what he calls the “why don’t you” fluff article in magazines is excellent too. He takes it to an absurd extreme, of course. 


The first time I noticed this “Why Don’t You?” department was a year ago last August while hungrily devouring news of the midsummer Paris openings. Without any preamble came the stinging query, “Why don’t you rinse your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France? Or pat her face gently with cream before she goes to bed, as they do in England?” After a quick look into the nursery, I decided to let my blonde child go to hell her own way, as they do in America…


Or this one, from “Beauty and the Bee.”


It is always something of a shock to approach a newsstand which handles trade publications and find the Corset and Underwear Review displayed next to the American Bee Journal. However, newsstands make strange bedfellows, as anyone who has ever slept with a newsstand can testify, and if you think about it at all (instead of sitting there in a torpor with your mouth half-open) you’d see this proximity is not only alphabetical. Both the Corset and Underwear Review and the American Bee Journal are concerned with honeys, and although I am beast enough to prefer a photograph of a succulent nymph in satin Lastix Girdleiere with Thrill Plus Bra to the most dramatic snapshot of an apiary, each has its place in my scheme. 


And this one, from “Swing Out, Sweet Chariot.” 


A few days ago I happened into my newsdealer’s for ten cents’ worth of licorice whips and the autumn issue of Spindrift, a rather advanced quarterly review in which I had been following an exciting serial called “Mysticism in the Rationalist Cosmogony, or John Dewey Rides Again.” In the previous number, the cattle rustlers (post-Hegelian dogma) had trapped Professor Dewey in an abandoned mine shaft (Jamesian pragmatism), and had ignited the fuse leading to a keg of dynamite (neo-Newtonian empiricism.) 


I also liked his satire of film critic Manny Farber


It has been suggested by some that Mr. Farber’s prose style is labyrinthine; they fidget as he picks up a complex sentence full of interlocking clauses and sends it rumbling down the alley. I do not share this view. With men who know rococo best, it’s Farber two to one. Lulled by his Wagnerian rhythms, I snooze in my armchair, confident that the mystique of the talking picture is in capable hands.


The satire of the technical expert on Hollywood productions was hilarious - although I think I might resemble some of his targets. 


Do you happen to know how many tassels a Restoration coxcomb wore at the knee? Or the kind of chafing dish a bunch of Skidmore girls would have used in a dormitory revel in 1911? Or the exact method of quarrying peat out of a bog at the time of the Irish Corn Laws? In fact, do you know anything at all that nobody else knows or, for that matter, gives a damn about? If you do, then sit tight, because one of these days you’re going to Hollywood as a technical supervisor on a million-dollar movie. You may be a bore to your own family, but you’re worth your weight in piastres to the picture business. 


Speaking of arcane stuff…


When it was first noised along Publisher’s Row that the John B. Pierce Foundation, a nonprofit research organization, had instituted a survey dealing with American family behavior, attitudes, and possessions, public opinion was instantly split into two camps - into the larger, and drowsier, of which I fell. There is nothing like a good, painstaking survey full of decimal points and guarded generalizations to put a glaze like a Sung vase on your eyeball.


A few of the sketches are about an extended tour of South Asia - in a very Ugly American style. The parody is so spot on for its time, but holds true today in ways I hate to admit. During the trip, the narrator and his wife (and kids) feud constantly, while the narrator plays it off as perfectly normal and endearing. 


“You rat,” replied my wife, employing a pet name she had found useful in domestic crises when logic failed.


And also this description of the ex-pat community in Thailand. 


Many of my compatriots, particularly the newer embassy crowd, were living on an extremely dickty scale; they had grandiose establishments, whole corps of servants, outriders and lackeys innumerable, and similar juicy perquisites, a circumstance which occasionally tempted them to behave like demigods and hand down magisterial judgments. Over the walnuts and wine, they were given to teetering on their heels and spouting pompous rubbish that made the toes curl with embarrassment. Most if it was a warmed-over hash of what they had read in Time or Reader’s Digest, salted with the Princetonian self-esteem that flourishes in the foreign service. 


One of the best takedowns in the book was from the “Cloudland Revisited” series. In it, he takes on the novels of Sax Rohmer, inventor of the supervillain, Dr. Fu Manchu. And, because of this, one of the worst feeders of the “Yellow Peril” panic that still affects us in the time of Covid-19. Perhaps the most viciously racist line from Rohmer: "No white man, I honestly believe, appreciates the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese." Yeah, not good. And even by the 1940s, when this was written, authors like Perelman were taking Rohmer to task for his racism. And, this being Perelman, he also makes great fun of the ludicrous plots of the books, and the superhuman attributes of Dr. Fu Manchu. 


Other Cloudland targets are Tarzan (oh, so ripe for satire), silent movie tropes, and Theda Bara. In the Tarzan one, he describes his childhood obsession:


Insofar as the topography of Rhode Island and my physique permitted, I modeled myself so closely on Tarzan that I drove the community to the brink of collapse. I flung spears at the neighbors’ laundry, exacerbated their watchdogs, swung around their piazzas gibbering and thumping my chest, made reply only in half-human grunts interspersed with unearly howls, and took great pains generally to qualify as a stench in the civic nostril.  


I also want to mention Perelman’s delightful skewering of Martin Revson - founder of the Revlon cosmetics empire. Some highlights:


Let’s have a show of hands - how many people here know what they’d like to be in their next incarnation? I mean if you had your choice, would you want to be, say, the curator of the British Museum or a crackerjack circus aerialist or the best of breed at the Empire Cat Show or what? Every thoughtful person interested in which way his soul is going to jump, whether he subscribes to the Buddhist system of musical chairs or not, must have asked himself this question at one time or another…


(By the way, the answer is, everybody wants to be a cat…) Perelman decides he wants to come back as Martin Revson.


“The reason women buy cosmetics,” he said, laying his nose slyly alongside his finger, “is because they buy hope. In other words,” he added, glomming a phrase from an impractical schlemiel named Henry David Thoreau, who gets himself quoted in in the damnedest contexts, “most women lead lives of dullness, quiet desperation, and I think cosmetics are a wonderful escape from it.” 


Yeah, poor Thoreau had no idea…


One of the best sketches is one parodying a high-end clothing store, determined to sell as little as possible - actual sales would dilute the brand and ruin the snooty image. In the sketch, a hapless customer attempts to buy a replacement garter to keep his socks up. And it goes very wrong. I loved this exchange:


Champollion (uneasily): I wasn’t figuring on too much expense, to tell you the truth.

Elphinstone: Possibly not, but you don’t realize the trouble involved. First, we have to make a plaster-of-Paris form of your shinbone, then a mockup in laminated wood, which is baked under pressure, sanitized, and aged. This guides the sculptor so he can rough out his cast.

Champollion: But I can’t wear stone garters! I have to be on my feet all day.

Elphinstone: We wouldn’t allow you to. They’re simply the matrix from which we execute your personalized accessory in a variety of materials. Here’s a swatch to give you an idea. This one, as you see, simulates pickled pine.

Champollion: What’s that one - plastic?

Elphinstone: No, it only simulates plastic; it’s infinitely more costly. Here’s one in a fabric so nearly resembling human flesh that customers frequently can’t find their garters once they’re on.

Champollion: Is that good?

Elphinstone (stifly): We’re not here to answer metaphysical questions, Mr. Champollion. We’re here to not sell merchandise. 

I loved the parodies of Hollywood culture too. Like this bit about, well, it speaks for itself.


“But why is everyone filming the same story?” I demanded.

“My argument precisely,” said Fenderbush. “I said to one of those donkeys last week, ‘Branch out, for Crisakes,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you make some other Russian masterpiece for a change? A good lively musical of Dead Souls, let’s say, with Piper Laurie and Tony Curtis.’” 


There are also some delightfully veiled references to actual persons - such as “Irving Stonehenge” - presumably Irving Stone. And some zingers: “I soon perceived that Hubris’s depiction of him as a chowderhead was rank flattery.” 


There is too much to quote, but “Sex and the Single Boy” is about the funniest satire on “Pickup Artists” ever - written a decade or two before they became part of the cultural vernacular. 


I am leaving so much out. This book was one of the funniest things I have read, very much in the tradition of American humor, from Twain and Harte to Leo Rosten and Thurber and George Carlin. I am thrilled that the Library of America decided to preserve his works, and, I hope, introduce them to a new generation of readers.

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