Arts & Culture

Lecture brings alumni comedian’s work to life

Late comedian S. J. Perelman continues to inspire laughs through film about his life

Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2015

Employing the wit of the legendary humorist and cartoonist S. J. Perelman, originally a member of the class of 1925, Sean Kelly ’84 expounded on his film “The Sophisticated Silliness of S. J. Perelman ’25” to an audience of students, faculty members and community members in the Lownes Room of the John Hay Library Thursday evening.

Perelman, a Providence native, served as a memorable member of the University’s humor magazine “The Brown Jug,” Kelly said. Foiled by a failed trigonometry class in a time before the open curriculum, Perelman never graduated from the University. Instead, he went on to great acclaim as a humorist, writing for the Marx Brothers and the New Yorker. Perelman would eventually receive an honorary degree from the University in 1959.

The event included a presentation of the film and a reception afterward. It was held as part of a promotion for “S. J. Perelman,” a newly released book of essays, literature and handmade art published by the Brown Ziggurat Press.

After a brief introduction from Christopher Geissler, director of the John Hay Library, Kelly discussed his interest in Perelman, whom he called “one of the greatest humorists … ever.”

Kelly said as a junior in high school, he read that Perelman had attended Brown, and he forever linked the humorist with the University in his mind. Yet despite the impact Perelman has had on many humorists at Brown and beyond, Kelly said Perelman’s work is rarely shown at Brown in an “academic sense,” adding that he hoped that he would be able to change that.

Kelly went on the describe Perelman’s writing process, noting that he was inspired by “anything and everything.” Perelman would start from a blurb that he found amusing and expand it beyond that “gag,” Kelly said. He would “allow that initial idea to have the best opportunity” by spending prolific periods of time producing each of his pieces. It often took weeks for Perelman to produce a piece that would take a reader five minutes to breeze through, he added.

“It pays off,” Kelly said. “You can see the depth of his thinking.”

Following his lecture, Kelly presented his film, which surveys Perelman’s life and connection to Brown.

Perelman’s style employed satirical humor, and he often used erudite references to Greek and Roman culture, Kelly said. “He loved language, and he loved to play with language.”

One of the clips Kelly showed was from the 1932 Marx Brothers film “Horse Feathers.” As one of the writers, Perelman infused his experience at Brown into the plot — the fictional college in the film is directly inspired by the University. The clip’s humor revealed a conversation that continues on campus today: The president of the university sits at a desk, fielding complaints from a cluster of disgruntled deans about their low salaries.

Samantha Crausman ’19 said she attended the event in the hopes of further exploring her interest in comedy at Brown, adding that the Morning Mail posting for the event piqued her interest.

The film also included the reflections of myriad Brown faculty members and alums about Perelman and his continued influence on a new generation of humorists.


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