Celebrated author and screenwriter, S. J. (Sidney Joseph) Perelman (1904-1979), is one of the defining humorists in American literature and film. Through his numerous essays in The New Yorker, as well as his co-authorship of the Marx brothers’ screenplays, he has cemented himself as the first surrealist humor writer in America and has pioneered the use of parody for subsequent generations.
S. J. Perelman was born in Brooklyn and raised in Providence; he was the only child of non-practicing Jewish immigrant parents. He attended Brown, where he befriended his eventual brother-in-law Nathanael West and edited the college humor magazine. However, he dropped out in 1924 and moved to Greenwich Village, where he became a cartoonist for Judge.
He was famous for co-writing Marx Brothers’ films, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), and in 1957 he won an Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days. However, it is his humor and parody essays in The New Yorker that have continually influenced writers of our time.
As prolific as he was talented, Perelman contributed work to Life, McCall’s, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, and TV Guide, among others. The New Yorker published 278 of Perelman’s casuals between December 13, 1930 and September 10, 1979.
S. J. Perelman’s “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away” depicts the frustration of putting together his children’s cardboard delivery truck and his eventual psychotic break. The language is hyperbolic, predicting a “nervous breakdown,” describing a supposedly “340o F” attic, and bemoaning the “agony” of a small cut.
Perelman avoids standard dialogue tags in favor of the more dramatic “whined,” “boomed,” “quavered,” and “snarled” or adverbial constructions like “asked suspiciously” and “countered glibly.” This heightens the parody by making the scene more and more ridiculous. The numerous adjectives, as in “I gave the wee fellow an indulgent pat on the head that flattened it slightly, to teach him civility, and commandeered a long, serrated bread knife from the kitchen,” feed Perelman’s heightening satire.
The straightforward dialogue, which contains few adjectives and adverbs, contrasts with the exaggerated language of the narration to establish an ironic tone. This serves to satirize the characters like the narrator, who gripe about minutia during the omnipresent but unmentioned World War II, which ultimately comments on the culture that Perelman is targeting.
Most of the editorial and advertising content in the February 1944 issue of The New Yorker explicitly refers to the ongoing Second World War.
The “Goings On About Town” includes “Civilian War Activities,” in addition to the typical Theatre, Art, Music, Sports, and Motion Pictures, and the two-page cartoon immediately preceding the essay depicts U.S. soldiers in the Pacific theater. By contrast, “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away” contain no overt or, arguably, implicit reference to the war.
An advertisement for Budd Steel anticipates the eventual use of wartime technological advances on the home front. This speaks to Perelman’s anxiety about technology; his assertion is that the model delivery truck kit is “easily intelligible to Kettering of General Motors, Professor Millikan, or any first-rate physicist.”
An advertisement for Arrow Shirts emphasizes the importance of wartime rationing, which conflicts with the wastefulness implied by the “Throw Away” of the essay’s title.
During Perelman’s lifetime, “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away” was reprinted in his collections Acres and Pains (1947) and The Most of S.J. Perelman (1958). In these collections, “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away” follows Perelman’s essay “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Enough,” which was originally published in The New Yorker May 8, 1943.
Perelman explicitly and repeatedly ties his discussion of love and pulp magazines in “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Enough” to the ongoing war. This draws attention to his later silence on the subject in “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away.”
The title of “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Enough” assumes reader familiarity with Latin conjugation, an implied bourgeoisie snobbishness linked to Perelman’s reference to “first-rate physicists” and dismissive remark about “something he can do with his hands” in “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away.”
Gale, Steven H. S.J. Perelman: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985. Print.
The New Yorker 19 (Feb. 5, 1944). Print.
Perelman, S.J. Acres and Pains. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947. Print.
–. “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away.” The New Yorker 19 (Feb. 5, 1944): 22-23. Print.
–. The Most of S.J. Perelman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958. 250-253. Print.
Perelman, S.J., and Prudence Crowther. Don’t Tread on Me: The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman. New York: Viking, 1987. Print.
All images from The New Yorker 19 (Feb. 5, 1944). Text by Krista Laliberte.