There is only one thing to be said about S. J. Perelman's 75-year term on this earth: it was not long enough. The obituary notices yesterday pointed out that Mr. Perelman preferred to be called a "comic writer" rather than a "humorist." In fact, neither phrase covers the territory. He was a comic genius. His great contribution, as tends to be the way with genius, was nothing you could ever express in a formulaic sentence -- e.g., "he showed for the first time that. . . " or "he introduced the novel technique of treating humorously. . ." or things like that. No, Mr. Perelman's great contribution was the contribution that he kept coming right up until the time of his death: the brilliant, unbearably funny insights, comments and creation that amount to his life's work.
We are all entitled to one entry in the contest for the absolute best Perelman, the ultimate piece. Our own would be a correspondence he imagined between Jawaharial Nehru's well-born father and the proprietor of a French laundry, when he read that the elder Nehru sent his laundry by sea mail to Paris to be washed and ironed and returned. The increasingly acrimonious exchange beween an imperious Papa Nehru and the tight-fisted supercilious Gallic proprietor over iron-scorched drawers and excessive bleaching of shirts was called -- what else? -- "No Starch in the Dhoti, S'il Vous Plait ."
If there was a single theme or subject on which Mr. Perelman was preeminent and with which he was specially identified, it was surely "Hollywood" -- as the glamourous and crazy mythic filming place used to be known before that larger anthropological conception, "California," took its place. Mr. Perelman wrote Marx Brothers movies. His brother-in-law and close friend in his younger days was Nathanael West, the mordant novelist-chronicler of Hollywood life. And Mr. Perelman himself, as a kind of Venerable Bede of film town, was in some ways no more charitable than Mr. West. Yet he was also a writer for Mike Todd's great postwar movie, "Around the World in 80 Days," and he used to say he admired Mr. Todd precisely because he retained some of the wild, larger-than-life business spirit of early Hollywood in the face of encroaching gray-flannelism, as the Marx Brothers seemed to be giving way to Brooks Brothers in southern California. Mr Perelman, in failing to show up to collect an Oscar in person a few years back, did not join the trend to moral earnestness and invoke some political or ethical scruple to explain his absence to the audience. He cited in his message only his inability to be present "for a variety of spicy reasons."
For a variety of reasons, all of them self-evident, we will miss Mr. Perelman -- something awful.