S. J. Perelman is probably most famous for the work he did with the Marx Brothers; he was the principal screenwriter for their two classic films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. A quarter century later, he won the Academy Award for screenwriting for Around the World In 80 Days (1956). Not bad for a man who hated Hollywood. He didn’t think much of screenwriting either.
“The mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever,” he told one interviewer. In 1952 he wrote to the actress Betsy Drake when he learned she was trying her hand at writing a screenplay. “My stomach turned over twice at the thought of you sitting in a hot little office in South Beverly Hills scratching verbs. Or adjectives. . . . The agony of creation is as nothing compared to what you will endure when the actors get at it. And the producer. And the director.”
Perelman wrote hundreds of extraordinarily popular magazine humor pieces, mostly for The New Yorker—“feuilletons,” as he called them, that earned critical acclaim as well as commercial success. A decade later, he admitted half-jokingly, “I loathe writing. On the other hand, I’m a great believer in money.” On one occasion, he was asked when he would publish The Great American Comic Novel that everyone seemed to expect from him, and he answered: “For the past thirty-four years, I have been approached almost hourly by damp people with foreheads like Rocky Ford melons who urge me to knock off my frivolous career and get started on that novel I’m burning to write. I have no earthly intention of doing any such thing.”
In April, Library of America will reissue Perelman’s first (and perhaps best) greatest hits collection, Crazy Like a Fox, which became a best seller upon publication and a perennial favorite for decades after. As the novelist Joshua Cohen writes in the introduction, “Perelman’s work is important (he would’ve hated that “important”) because it documents the exact mid-twentieth-century American moment that the experimental became fully and finally commercial.”
Plus, his works are extremely funny. For our Story of the Week selection, we present “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away,” in which he is driven literally insane (and he would’ve hated that “literally”) by the assembly instructions for furniture and toys.