Ornery Little Critters



S. J. Perelman, ca. 1957.

From a letter sent by S. J. Perelman to Betsy Drake, dated May 12, 1952. Perelman, one of the most popular humorists of his time, was born on this day in 1904; he died in 1979. Donald Barthelme called him “the first true American surrealist.”I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons—that is, a writer of little leaves. They’re comic essays of a particular type,” Perelman told The Paris Review in 1963. Here he advises Drake on the miseries of screenwriting. “The mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever. It was a hideous and untenable place when I dwelt there, populated with few exceptions by Yahoos, and now that it has become the chief citadel of television, it’s unspeakable,” he told the Review

I was floored by your decision to exchange the grease-pencil and the mummer’s mask for the quill. Convinced, like everyone, that anybody else’s profession is better than his own, my stomach turned over twice at the thought of you sitting in a hot little office in South Beverly Hills scratching verbs. Or adjectives. They are the least responsive, most ornery little critters in the world to work with, and I needn’t tell you how exasperating, befuddling, and dismaying a full day of struggling with them can be. I take it you are hacking out some sort of treatment which by now, undoubtedly, has burst its cocoon and become a beautiful screenplay. Well, kid, take a tip from a bruised refugee from the medium. The agony of creation is as nothing compared to what you will endure when (unless you yourself propose to speak all the parts) the actors get at it. And the producer. And the director … In short, you are batting a sticky wicket. You are, as W. S. Gilbert said, playing billiards on a twisted cloth with elliptical billiard balls. (He said it more felicitously—I can’t remember the exact words.) The aces, to put it still another way, are all tucked up your opponent’s sleeves. In spite of all which pessimism, don’t lose heart. After you’ve succumbed to impulse and flung the portable against the wall and gone out and got drunk and bought a new hat and sobbed yourself to sleep and awakened with a hangover, sit down again and look at what you wrote yesterday. It isn’t that bad; in fact, it’s acquired a strange kind of validity from just lying there overnight. At least, it’s a beginning. This is what I always tell myself. And I am capable of as much self-deception as any man of my weight and age in existence … I’d probably better stop before I begin giving you little travelogues about Washington in cherry-blossom time, the witchery of girls in their summer dresses on Fifth Avenue, and roguish-eyed cops flirting with nursemaids. I shall be lunching on Friday with an editor who has it in his power to dispatch me to the Coast on some trumped-up mission this summer, like measuring the size of Dore Schary’s hindquarters for the Smithsonian, so keep your fingers crossed …

S. J. Perelman’s correspondence is available in Don’t Tread on Me: The Selected Letters of S. J. Perelman.