S. J. Perelman, the bright joy of American humor, converted the sofa of his room at the Shoreham to a sinner's bench and sat smoking quite steadily for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon, dreading a speech to the American Booksellers convention last night.
"You are a national monument," someone said to him.
"Suitable for climbing," he said. "There are going to be 300 of them, maybe," he said of the wordy merchants for whom he has always had an ambivalance fit for a teenager toward his father, and this despite the handsome stipends they have been paying him for nigh on a thousand years (he began his writing career in the mid-'20s, when he found his captions for cartoons in the old Judge magazine were getting longer and longer).
The immediate inspiration for his Washington visit was to call attention to his new travel book, "Eastward Ha!" which is counterclockwise to his other travel book, "Westward Ha!" and both of them do more than tell you what hotels not to stay at.
Of course, as a mere comic writer (he eschews the lordlier "humorist") he gives himself no majors airs and contemplates his trade with dread and loathing and satisfaction.
"I do not think a comic writer has any business thinking of himself as a moralist," he said, to introduce a minisermon on the dangers of funny folk confusing themselves with Croce.
"Andy White always said the comic writer lives in the antechamber of literature, and I try to sustain myself by believing this form I have chosen is capable of improvement."
He thought a second and advertised: "It even has a very considerable value.
"I used to watch people leaving a Marx Brothers film, their cheeks stained from tears of laughter. Then they would say, 'Wasn't that silly?' If they had been equally churned up by a Garbo movie they wouldn't say that. They'd think they had been purged - you know, catharsis. But with comedy, people do not trust their reactions.
"The trouble is people do not have the courage of their laughter."
Perelman was solemn as a boiled owl, a trifle annoyed by the sun catching in his glasses but suspecting if was not worth a major campaign, like moving. He is trim, well-dressed, and offhandedly careful of his words at 73, and still has blue eyes as formerly. His mustache is sandy, his hands vigorous and strong, and he is almost the only man left in America who pronounces harass correctly.
He races right along, of course, as in this typical passage in which Hercule, his companion's animal, bruises his ankle:
"Stop the car!" I cried out, rolling down my sock. "Your animal's crippled me. Look, it's gushing blood - my leg's stiffening -"
She scrutinized the wound by the light of a match. "Absurd," she retorted. "It's a mere scratch. Here, I'll put collodion on it."
"Are you mad? Collodion is nail polish - it seals in the infection! That's the first thing I was taught in premedical school."
"O.K., then, arnica." She smeared on some goodge from a tube and looped a filthy rag over the lesion. "There - you could cross Tanzania on that."
Perelman is thinking of collecting the Hercules and arnicas of his life and writing an autobiography.
But how many people have true conviction of their own laughter, or indeed other things? Well, Perelman knew an anarchist named Coffey who perfected a method of stealing fur coats from Wannamaker's but was later caught, and after some confusion entered the real estate business and sold Dorothy Parker a house. But the thing was, Perelman went on, he gave his money from the stolen furs to anarchist organizations, and lived poor himself. How's that for conviction?
Rococo is a mean word, nowadays, but Perelman's essays, flashbacks and general cud-chewing are decked with shells and gewgaws, found and treasured and used. His vocabulary is extraordinary for a humorist, and he loves to allude to everything under the sun. It is a rich and textured style and if you don't get all the naps and woofs, well you just don't, but Perelman has never hesitated to make things as rich, as possible.
"I suppose it is highly allusive, and presupposes a good bit of reading. Which today is increasingly rare.
"But then a mumber of young people tell me they like my stuff, which I am happy about because it means they have taken up reading again.
"Cool - young people were all cool there for a while - is the reverse of being articulate. And then working counter to words is television, which is undermining the whole thing."
Perelman is not sure how long the world will hold together. But proposes to stay around to see, mind you."
Groucho (Perelman collaborated on two of the most famous films, "Horse Feathers" and "Monkey Business",) never trusted Perelman's wide reading and learning, Perelman said.
"Like all comedians, he was insecure. They are all angst-ridden. I would try out something, say an allusion to 'The Merry Widow' or a line like 'my regiment leaves at dawn,' and he'd say the barber in Peru, Ind., would never laugh at it because he never heard of the 'Merry Widow.'
"How the hell do you know what he's heard of," Perelman used to say.
Marx, who tried to be a closet intellectual but was caught redhanded on many occasions, liked to bait Perelman for being an intellectual, and it is not at all safe to say Perelman was amused by it. A man has his reputation, by God.
After Judge magazine, where his captions got longer and longer, and the Marx Brothers, there was chiefly The New Yorker, whose pages he has honeyed and vingared for decades. Harold Ross was the editor:
"Ross loved to nitpick. He once wrote an inquiry raising 96 points about a piece. It was somebody else's job to answer them and keep the writers heappy at the same time. Ross once told me, 'You have created this crazy world, but it has a logic of its own and you must follow it. He would nit pick about things he thought were not logical within the context of the piece. He was almost always right. Used to an editor who takes that much time?"
Perelman left America for England in 1970, but has been back in America five years now. He said he was moving to England because people there are courteous and life was civilized.
Probably was. Perelman was back in no time.
"The nature of my work [humor] means I must live in abrasive or somewhat unpleasant places. Besides, another thing that generates work is boredom. And there is something about New York, probably the goddam Protestant work ethic, that makes you work. Everybody else is buzzing around working, so you work yourself."
His auditors felt they had rarely heard a more elegant compliment to the Big Apple or Gramercy Park, where Perelman lives.
The truth is, apparently, he simply missed the fireworks of American speech and - Lord save us all - got homesick. Anyway here he is among us yet.
Dorothy Parker once did a piece about Perelman.
She could not imagine, she said, why anyone would be a writer, let alone a comic writer, "while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats."
Nevertheless, she went on, humor involves courage, though there must be no awe. There must ba a disciplined eye and a wild mind. Perelman is perfect, she concluded.
Perelman said he wondered if comic writers suffered from the same industrial hazard as comedians, that is anxiety and awful depression, and someone said that in writers it is the same only it is indefinitely postponed.
"Well, I have had my share of depression," he said cheerfully.
But then who, when you get down to it, is not held together merely by a little baling wire?
"Bailing wire?" asked Perelman. "Bobby pins."