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“Professor” Irwin Corey (1914 – 2017)

by Steph Byce

“Professor” Irwin Corey, the classic comedian billed as the World’s Foremost Authority, died Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. He was 102.

“Professor” Irwin Corey, the classic comedian billed as the World’s Foremost Authority, died Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. He was 102.

The centenarian funnyman was known for a decidedly weird routine. Dressed in the garb of an absent-minded professor – wild hair, a shabby suit, and sneakers – he’d wander onstage distractedly. He’d consult his notes, maybe laugh at something he saw there, pocket the notes, consult them again … finally, the first word of his routine, always the same: “However …” What followed was a masterpiece of doublespeak, improvised by Corey and thoroughly confusing and amusing his audience.


One oft-quoted snippet of a Corey routine started: “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.”

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Corey sprinkled more recognizable aphorisms among the 50-cent words, and these quotable quotes were so perfect that some have entered the lexicon as clichéd phrases, with few who repeat them knowing who coined them. Here’s how Corey turned a phrase:

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

“If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.”

“You can get further with a kind word and a gun that you do with just a kind word.”

The distinctive routine came from the brain of a man who had an unconventional childhood and young adulthood. Born in Brooklyn July 29, 1914, Corey was one of six siblings who grew up in an orphanage despite not being orphans. Abandoned by her husband, Corey’s mother struggled to support her children while working and also attempting to recover from tuberculosis. The Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum was a solution born out of desperation – she could work enough to send them money for the children’s care while also recuperating from her illness.

It was Corey’s home until he was 13, and it was where he started his long comedy career, performing to amuse the other children. But then the young teen joined the tide moving west, riding the rails to California in search of work. He returned to New York as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, working his way across the country and, in his spare time, taking up boxing and becoming a featherweight champion.

Back east, Corey began performing as a comedian, working the Catskills circuit as well as New York City clubs. As his career burgeoned, World War II interrupted. Corey was determined not to serve, first seeking 4F status and then, when he was drafted nevertheless, convincing his superiors he was a homosexual and being discharged after six months.

Postwar, Corey honed his Professor persona and ramped up his path to fame, appearing on many of the hottest shows of TV’s early days. He was a regular guest of talk show hosts including Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Ed Sullivan. Through his surreal stand-up routine, he influenced many of the next generation of comics as they got their start: Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, and George Carlin were just a few of the stand-ups who looked up to him. He occasionally acted, too, as when he guest-starred on an episode of “The Phil Silvers Show” and, later, in movies such as “How To Commit Marriage” (1969) and “Car Wash” (1976).

Alongside his stage and screen career came a number of odd stunts, not least of which was his 1960 bid for the presidency of the United States as part of Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy” ticket. His campaign slogans included, “Vote for Irwin and get on the dole” and, “Corey will run for any party, with a bottle in his hand.”

In 1974, attendees of the National Book Award ceremony were perplexed as Corey arrived onstage to accept the award on behalf of its actual winner, Thomas Pynchon, author of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” His acceptance speech was much like one of his “professorial” comedy routines. Just as the audience was at its most bewildered, a streaker ran across the stage – not associated with Pynchon or Corey in any way; he was just a random sign of the times. Corey knew the more serious contingent of the literary world was annoyed by his appearance, but he didn’t care: As he told interviewer Jim Knipfel, “I got paid $500 for it, and I had a good time.”

In his 80s and 90s, Corey undertook an unusual mission. Walking the streets of New York City, he sold newspapers to drivers for a dollar or a handful of change. According to The New York Times, those papers were often free ones that he took from public newspaper boxes. Unkempt and repeating his mantra – “Help a guy out?” – Corey appeared like any other panhandler, though some recognized the comedian. What they didn’t know was that he donated all his proceeds from these escapades to a charity that provides medical supplies for children in Cuba. He even had the autographed photo of Cuban President Fidel Castro on his apartment wall to prove it.

It was one of many ways in which Corey was politically and socially conscious. A far-left liberal, he loved relating his favorite example of his radicalism: “When I tried to join the Communist Party, they called me an anarchist,” as he told The New York Times. He was blacklisted in Hollywood for his support of the party, a consequence that continued to affect his career for years after the end of the McCarthy era. But he remained active with his leftist views, supporting causes including the Mumia Abu-Jamal defense fund and Palestinian relief efforts.

Of his political activism, Corey told interviewer Kliph Nesteroff, “I was never aware that I was a political commentator. It just happens. You just do it. You breathe, but you’re not conscious of breathing. When I did my act, I wasn’t conscious that it was political.”

Corey was married for 70 years to the former Fran Berman, who preceded him in death in 2011. He was also preceded in death by their daughter, Margaret, and he is survived by their son, Richard.

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