Irwin Corey

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"Professor" Irwin Corey
Irwin Corey 1963.JPG
Corey in a 1963 television appearance
Born (1914-07-29) July 29, 1914 (age 100)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Years active 1938–present
Genres Wit/Word play, improvisational and character comedy, satire
Influenced Lenny Bruce, Tom Smothers[1]
Spouse Fran Corey (1941–2011);[2] 1 son
Website Official website

"Professor" Irwin Corey (born July 29, 1914) is an American comic, film actor and activist, often billed as "The World's Foremost Authority". He introduced his unscripted, improvisational style of stand-up comedy at the well-known San Francisco club, the hungry i. Lenny Bruce once described Corey as "one of the most brilliant comedians of all time".[3]

Personal life[edit]

Corey was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York.[2] Poverty-stricken, his parents were forced to place him in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, where Corey remained until his early teens, when he rode the rails out to California, and enrolled himself at Belmont High School in Los Angeles.[2] During the Great Depression he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps and, while working his way back East, became a featherweight Golden Gloves boxing champion.

Corey supported left-wing politics. "When I tried to join the Communist Party, they called me an anarchist."[4] He has appeared in support of Cuban children, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the American Communist Party, and was blacklisted in the 1950s, the effects of which he says still linger to this day. (Corey never returned to Late Night with David Letterman after his first appearance in 1982, which he claimed was a result of the blacklist still being in effect.[5]) During the 1960 election, Corey campaigned for president on Hugh Hefner's Playboy ticket.[4] Corey was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When the famously publicity-shy Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award Fiction Citation for Gravity's Rainbow, he asked Corey to accept it on his behalf.[6] The New York Times described the resulting speech as "...a series of bad jokes and mangled syntax which left some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed."[6]

In the Robert A. Heinlein science fiction novel Friday, the eponymous heroine says

At one time there really was a man known as "the World's Greatest Authority." I ran across him in trying to nail down one of the many silly questions that kept coming at me from odd sources. Like this: Set your terminal to "research." Punch parameters in succession "North American culture," "English-speaking," "mid-twentieth century," "comedians," "the World’s Greatest Authority." The answer you can expect is "Professor Irwin Corey." You’ll find his routines timeless humor.[7]

For an October 2011 interview,[2] Corey invited a New York Times reporter to visit his 1840 carriage house on East 36th Street. Corey estimated its resale value at $3.5 million. He said that, when not performing, he panhandled for change from motorists exiting the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Every few months, he told the interviewer, he donated the money to a group that purchased medical supplies for Cuban children. He said of the drivers who supplied the cash, "I don’t tell them where the money’s going, and I’m sure they don’t care." Irvin Arthur, Corey's agent for half a century, assured the reporter that Corey did not need the money for himself. "This is not about money," Arthur said. "For Irwin, this is an extension of his performing."[2]

Career[edit]

Comedy[edit]

In 1938 Corey returned to New York, where he got a job writing and performing in Pins and Needles, a musical comedy revue about a union organizer in the "garment district". He claims he was fired from this job for his union organizing activities. Five years later he was working in New Faces of 1943 and appearing at the Village Vanguard, doing his stand-up comedy routine. He was drafted during World War II, but was discharged after six months, after he claims he convinced an Army psychiatrist that he was a homosexual.[8]

From the late 1940s he cultivated his "Professor" character. Dressed in seedy formal wear and sneakers, with his bushy hair sprouting in all directions, Corey would amble on stage in a preoccupied manner, then begin his monologue with "However ..." He created a new style of double-talk comedy; instead of making up nonsense words like "krelman" and "trilloweg", like double-talker Al Kelly, the Professor would season his speech with many long and florid, but authentic, words. The professor would then launch into nonsensical observations about anything under the sun, but seldom actually making sense. Changing topics suddenly, he would wander around the stage, pontificating all the while. His quick wit allowed him to hold his own against the most stubborn straight man, heckler or interviewer. One notable fan of Corey's comedy, despite their radically different politics, was Ayn Rand.[9] Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of the Professor in The New Yorker, "Corey is a cultural clown, a parody of literacy, a travesty of all that our civilization holds dear, and one of the funniest grotesques in America. He is Chaplin's tramp with a college education".[10] In 1951 Corey appeared as "Abou Ben Atom", the Genie, in the cult flop Broadway musical Flahooley along with Yma Sumac, the Bil and Cora Baird Marionettes and Barbara Cook (in her Broadway debut). Corey's performance of "Springtime Cometh" can be heard on the show's original cast album.

Film and television[edit]

Corey appeared occasionally in 1950s television as a character actor. He is memorable in an episode of The Phil Silvers Show titled "Bilko's Grand Hotel", in which Corey plays an unkempt Bowery bum being passed off as a hotelier by Sgt. Bilko. The Professor was a frequent guest comic on variety shows and a guest panelist on game shows during the 1960s and 1970s.

Corey became so synonymous with comic erudition that, when a Rhode Island television station WJAR TV, wanted a spokesman to explain changes in network affiliations, Corey got the job. Lecturing with pointer in hand, Corey manipulated magnetic signs to demonstrate how television schedules would be disrupted. By the end of the announcement, the visual aids were in shambles and the professor, as usual, had meandered from his original point. Corey often appeared on Steve Allen's late night show, syndicated by Westinghouse, The Steve Allen Show (1962–1964), whereupon he would end his rambling stand-up routine with Allen literally chasing him off the stage. He guest starred on the syndicated talk show version of The Donald O'Connor Show in 1968.[11] Corey appeared in various Broadway productions, including as a gravedigger in a production of Hamlet.[12]

Family[edit]

Corey was married for 70 years to his wife, Fran, who died in May 2011.[2] The couple had two children, a daughter, the late Margaret Davis, née Corey, an actress, a son, Richard, a painter, and two grandsons, Amadeo Corey and Corey Meister.[13][14] He turned 100 in July 2014.[15]

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Tom Smothers interview in Jerry Jazz Musician (2002)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Kilgannon, Corey. "A Familiar Figure Begs on the Street, but Not for Himself". City Room Blog (The New York Times). Retrieved January 28, 2012. 
  3. ^ Kitty Bruce (ed.), The Almost Unpublished Lenny Bruce: from the private collection of Kitty Bruce, Running Press, 1984. p. 10
  4. ^ a b Kilgannon, Corey. "A Distinguished Professor With a Ph.D. in Nonsense", The New York Times, 2008.
  5. ^ Knipfel, Jim. Who Am the World‘s Foremost Authority? New York Press, 2001.
  6. ^ a b Sales, Nancy Jo, Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon, New York Magazine, 11 November 1996. Retrieved 28 January 2013.
  7. ^ Wagner, Mitch, Robert A. Heinlein’s technological prophecies, Robert A. Heinlein: The TOR.COM Blog Symposium, Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., 17 August 2010. Retrieved 27 January 2013
  8. ^ Chanin, Myra (July 30, 2012). "Happy Birthday to the World's Weirdest Comic: Professor Irwin Corey, the Gibberish Maven". The Huffington Post. Retrieved July 9, 2014. 
  9. ^ Sures, Charles and Mary Ann. Facets of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand Institute, 2001.
  10. ^ Official Biography of Professor Irwin Corey
  11. ^ "The Blasted Bugs Are Back". Ludington Daily News (Ludington, Michigan: Harold P. Furstenau). June 9, 1977. Retrieved July 9, 2014. 
  12. ^ IBDb website
  13. ^ Info re Irwin Corey's family
  14. ^ Report on Corey by The Villager (NYC)
  15. ^ Tribou, Richard (2014-07-29). "People still with us: Comic Irwin Corey turns 100". Orlando Sentinel (Tribune Company). Retrieved 2014-07-31. 
  16. ^ "Irwin & Fran". imdb.com. 

External links[edit]