The Brooklyn native comic, film actor and activist, dubbed the ‘Professor’ and often billed as “The World’s Foremost Authority” enjoyed a comedic career spanning more than six decades.
His son, Richard on Tuesday called his father ‘original and one-of-a-kind, iconic’ and told the AP his father ‘died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his son.’
He introduced his unscripted, improvisational style of stand-up comedy at the well-known San Francisco club, the hungry i. Lenny Bruce described Corey as “one of the most brilliant comedians of all time”.
Corey was born on July 29, 1914 in Brooklyn, New York, Poverty-stricken after his father deserted the family, his mother was forced to place him and his five siblings in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, where Corey remained until his early teens. He then rode in boxcars out to California, and enrolled himself at Belmont High School in Los Angeles.
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.” He 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 stated lingered throughout his life. (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.) During the 1960 election, Corey campaigned for president on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy ticket. During the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Corey endorsed Vermont United States Senator Bernie Sanders for the nomination and presidency. 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 in 1974, he asked Corey to accept it on his behalf. 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.”
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.
For an October 2011 interview, 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.” In his memoir, Phoning Home, Jacob M. Appel cites a personal encounter with Corey on a street in New York City as the basis for his novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up.
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 claimed that 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 claimed he convinced an Army psychiatrist that he was a homosexual.
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 observations about anything under the sun, but seldom actually making sense.
However … we all know that protocol takes precedence over procedures. This Paul Lindsey point of order based on the state of inertia of developing a centrifugal force issued as a catalyst rather than as a catalytic agent, and hastens a change reaction and remains an indigenous brier to its inception. This is a focal point used as a tangent so the bile is excreted through the panaceas.
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. Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan 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”.
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.
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 Providence, 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 commercial, the visual aids were in shambles and the professor, had meandered from his original point. Corey would do the same promos for WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee in 1977 during the time that rival stations WITI and WISN-TV switched affiliations.
Corey often appeared on The Steve Allen Show (1962–1964), whereupon he would end his rambling stand-up routine with Allen and stage hands literally chasing Corey with a giant butterfly net. He later guest starred on the The Donald O’Connor Show in 1968. Corey appeared in various Broadway productions, including as a gravedigger in a production of Hamlet.
In 2009, filmmaker Jordan Stone began filming what was to become an award-winning documentary film called “Irwin & Fran“. Political activist and fellow stand-up comedian Dick Gregory shared some in-depth and provocative memories and Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon narrated in a very personal tone. The film won The People’s Film Festival Best Film Award in 2013.
Corey was married for 70 years to Fran, who died in May 2011. The couple had two children, the late Margaret Davis, née Corey, an actress, and Richard Corey, a painter. Their two grandsons are Amadeo Corey and Corey Meister. Irwin Corey turned 100 in July 2014.
Corey died at the age of 102 on February 6, 2017 at his apartment in Manhattan with his son Richard at his side.