With Ogden Nash he wrote the book for the musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Nash), which opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for more than 500 performances. His play The Beauty Part (1962), which starred Bert Lahr in multiple roles, fared less well, its short run attributed at least in part to an accompanying 11-week newspaper strike.
Perelman's work is difficult to characterize. He wrote many brief, humorous descriptions of his travels for various magazines, and of his travails on his Pennsylvania farm, all of which were collected into books. (A few were illustrated by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who accompanied Perelman on the round-the-world trip recounted in Westward Ha!) He also wrote numerous brief sketches for The New Yorker in a style that was unique to him. They were infused with a sense of ridicule, irony, and wryness and frequently used his own misadventures as their theme. Perelman chose to describe these pieces as feuilletons—a French literary term meaning "little leaves"—and he defined himself as a feuilletoniste. Perelman's only attempt at a conventional novel (Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge) was unsuccessful, and throughout his life he was resentful that authors who wrote in the full-length form of novels received more literary respect (and financial success) than short-form authors like himself, although he openly admired his British rival, P.G. Wodehouse. While many believe Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge to be a novel, it is actually his first collection of humorous pieces, many written while he was still a student at Brown. It is largely considered juvenalia and its pieces were never included in future Perelman collections.
The tone of Perelman's feuilletons, however, was very different from those sketches of the inept "little man" struggling to cope with life that James Thurber and other New Yorker writers of the era frequently produced. Yet his references to himself were typically wittily self-deprecatory—as for example, "before they made S. J. Perelman, they broke the mold." Although frequently fictional, very few of Perelman's sketches were precisely short stories.
Sometimes he would glean an apparently off-hand phrase from a newspaper article or magazine advertisement and then write a brief, satiric play or sketch inspired by that phrase. A typical example is his 1950s work, "No Starch in the Dhoti, S'il Vous Plait." Beginning with an off-hand phrase in a New York Times Magazine article ("...the late Pandit Motilal Nehru—who sent his laundry to Paris—the young Jawaharlal's British nurse etc. etc. ...), Perelman composes a series of imaginary letters that might have been exchanged in 1903 between an angry Pandit Nehru in India and a sly Parisian laundryman about the condition of his laundered underwear.
In other sketches, Perelman would satirize popular magazines or story genres of his day. In "Somewhere A Roscoe," he pokes fun at the "purple prose" writing style of 1930s pulp magazines such as Spicy Detective. In "Swing Out, Sweet Chariot," he examines the silliness of the "jive language" found in The Jitterbug, a teen magazine with stories inspired by the 1930s Swing dance craze. Perelman voraciously read magazines to find new material for his sketches. (He often referred to the magazines as "Sauce for the gander.")
Perelman also occasionally used a form of word play that was, apparently, unique to him. He would take a common word or phrase and change its meaning completely within the context of what he was writing, generally in the direction of the ridiculous. In Westward Ha!, for instance, he writes: "The homeward-bound Americans were as merry as grigs (the Southern Railway had considerately furnished a box of grigs for purposes of comparison) ... ". Another classic Perelman pun is "I've got Bright's Disease and he's got mine".
He also wrote a notable series of sketches called Cloudland Revisited in which he gives acid (and disillusioned) descriptions of recent viewings of movies (and recent re-readings of novels) which had enthralled him as a youth in 1919 Providence, Rhode Island.
A number of his works were set in Hollywood and in various places around the world. He stated that as a young man he was heavily influenced by James Joyce, particularly his wordplay, obscure words and references, metaphors, irony, parody, paradox, symbols, free associations, non-sequiturs, and sense of the ridiculous. All these elements infused Perelman's own writings but his own style was precise, clear, and the very opposite of Joycean stream of consciousness. Perelman drily admitted to having been such a Ring Lardner thief that he should have been arrested. Woody Allen has in turn admitted to being influenced by Perelman and recently has written what can only be called tributes, in very much the same style. The two once happened to have dinner at the same restaurant, and when the elder humorist sent his compliments, the younger comedian mistook it for a joke. Authors that admired Perelman's ingenious style included T. S. Eliot and W. Somerset Maugham.
Perelman was indirectly responsible for the success of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. When first published, this novel received lukewarm reviews and indifferent sales. A few months later, Perelman was interviewed for a national publication. The interviewer asked Perelman if he had read anything funny lately. Perelman—a man not noted for generosity with his praise—went to considerable lengths to commend Catch-22. After the interview was published, sales of Heller's novel skyrocketed.
Perelman's personal life was difficult; his marriage to Nathanael West's sister Laura (nee Lorraine Weinstein) was strained from the start because of his interminable affairs (notably with Leila Hadley), and Perelman was not much of a father. He generally regarded children as a nuisance, and his son Adam ended up in a reformatory for wayward boys. The two things that brought him happiness were his MG car and a tropical bird, both of which he pampered like babies. His Anglophilia turned rather sour when he actually had to socialize with the English themselves.
Perelman picked up plenty of juicy expressions from Yiddish and liberally sprinkled his prose with these phrases, thus paving the way for the likes of Philip Roth. Both his surprisingly lackluster biography by Herrmann and the Selected Letters ("Don't Tread On Me", edited by Prudence Crowther) suffer from the fact that "Lotharian Sid's" erotic escapades and fantasies have been censored beyond recognition to protect certain individuals.
A British expert on comic writing, Frank Muir, lauded Perelman as the best American comic author of all time in his Oxford Book of Humorous Prose.