Seriously Funny . .

By Vestey, Michael | The Spectator, December 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

Seriously Funny . .


Vestey, Michael, The Spectator


The American humorist S.J. Perelman was a huge influence on American comedy from the 1930s onwards and even to some extent on its British version. Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan acknowledged his surrealistic inspiration when they wrote The Goon Show for radio in the 1950s; Monty Python was also influenced by Perelman. Woody Allen is probably his greatest American admirer today, and this week he presented his own tribute to him, Chicken Inspector No 23 -- the Story of S.J.Perelman on Radio Four (Tuesday). Allen is himself the subject of a two-part programme to mark his 70th birthday, Woody Allen -- the Cabaret Years, starting this week (Thursday).

Sidney Perelman was born in 1904, the son of Russian-Jewish émigrés, and read widely in his local library, building up an impressive vocabulary which he deployed imaginatively when he became a writer.

'As far as I'm concerned, ' Allen said in his introduction, 'there's no writer of comic prose to compare with him.' Perelman's technique, as he described it in an interview, was to build nonsense on a serious base, not just nonsense piled upon nonsense, which he thought was tiresome.

'Light as a soufflé but utterly complex, ' said Allen. Denis Norden spoke of how a generation of comedy writers discovered Perelman at the end of the 1930s and tried to copy him in British radio, the only outlet apart from Punch in those days. Perelman, he said, took for granted that his audience were intelligent, and so when he and Frank Muir wrote Take It From Here they assumed an intelligence in their audience that the BBC had been reluctant to give it credit for.

From Hancock onwards you can see it in the best comedy on radio and television, through Round The Horne to The Office.

Perelman actually began as a cartoonist before writing his first book, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, largely a collection of pieces that first appeared in an American version of Punch called Judge. It was praised in a review by Groucho Marx, who wrote that from the moment he picked up the book until he put it down he was convulsed with laughter, adding the typical wisecrack, 'Some day I intend reading it.' Perelman wrote to thank him, and Groucho invited him to write for the Marx Brothers, an association he later cursed, partly for overshadowing his other work but also for apparent personality reasons, writing that he would rather be 'chained to a gallery oar and lashed at ten-minute intervals until the blood spurted from his frame than ever work for those sons of bitches again'. …

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