With the death of S.J. Perelman yesterday, American humor did not die, of course, though it lost a lot of bubbles.
The house of humor has many mansions, for God is generous, but the rooms don't seem quite right today without the tasseled lamp shades, the crowned mustard pots, the tiger rugs with ostrich fringe and the other dear clutter that Perelman readers loved.
In his life's time, a pitifully brief three-quarters of a century, Mr. Perelman was a joy to talk with. He assumed everybody was worthy of respect, even newspaper reporters, and not surprisingly people treated him not only with respect but as if he were an oracle.
You had to remember not to ask him what he thought of Afghanistan or the genetic code or the state of the American poodle (perhaps overbred?) or other great matters, because you realized (suddenly) he was not a specialist in all fields, merely (as he loved to say) a comic writer. And yet you also felt he was bound to know. The comic as Authority -- you felt that in Perelman's presence, and in Grouch Marx's presence, and not in the presence of most comics.
His interior head, if one may presume to venture into such luxuriant terrain, was much like Don Quixote's.
Any trifling thing that happened (as he wrote out his nutty characters in his books) took on the magnitude of exploding galaxies.
He could spot a slight, an insult, 20 miles off, or at least his characters could. The plainest situation could become a tangled wood with no way out, once his characters had time to sufficiently misunderstand it.
If he went to an office water fountain he feared death by drowning or (if someone stopped him on the way) promptly envisioned the buzzards over the poor parched victim in the desert who never made the oasis, crawling on bloodied knees, etc., etc.
He once moved to England where he thought life was more civilized than here. Back in no time, of course, because civilization had nothing to do with S.J. Perelman's world. What had to do with his world was pressure, agony, striving, sunbursts, volcanoes, geysers.
He never had a Sancho Panza, a loyal sidekick who comprehended him dimly and loved him deeply and assisted him in the noblest follies. Instead, he went alone, riding the gorgeously caparisoned steed of his imagination, facing every windmill, every giant, every princess in distress, alone.
I was sure, the couple of times I was able to hear him ramble on in a delightful way, that he had taken a good look at the world early on, and had early decided he could do better himself.
With all respect to God (for Perelman never gave himself any airs as creator) he took chaos and added somewhat more to it and, behold, order. Of a sort.
If a lady tried to bandage a scratch on him, he saw her as poisoner, as Delila, as Lucretia B., as Eve plotting ruin. He understood persecution complex, megalomania, and good wholesome normal paranoia better than most humorists, and like St George laid the dragon at our feet.
Well could we laugh, once the beast was harmless.
And yet he did not look like a shining knight, really, but more like the owner of one of those bookshops where you could always find the latest work on cannibalism and the earliest works on the soul.
He looked like a fellow much worn by reading and the tensions inside him gave him a look you would never confuse with the look of a merry lad.
Like Quixote, he clearly hankered for better bread than is made with wheat. Quixote never saw a farm wench, sweating on the winnowing floor, but he mistook her for a golden princess. Perelman never saw an instance of American ignorance, bumptiousness, or insane fear, but he saw it as golden grain for a golden loaf.
It's not hard to think of him at peace.But who will now defend us, who will even understand us, when we clearly see the nurse with the Mercurochrome is fixing to SLAUGHTER US as we lie helpless with our grave wound, etc.
Answer me this, where is now our magic Unicorn?