Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Late Great Professor Irwin Corey, The World's Foremost Authority

If you are a Gen Xer, Baby Boomer, or older, chances are good that you remember Professor Irwin Corey. By far his most popular persona was the World's Foremost Authority, a figure dressed in black tails, a string tie, and tennis shoes, who would spout  pseudo-intellectual streams of nonsense in an attempt to explain nearly any subject under the sun. Irwin Corey's routine was uproariously funny, which was made all the more remarkable in that it was wholly unscripted. He had many admirers during his incredibly long career. Lenny Bruce described Irwin Corey as, "...one of the most brilliant comedians of all time." Damon Runyon considered him one the funniet man alive. Critic Kenneth Tynan said of him, "He is Chaplin's clown with a college education." Professor Irwin Corey died at the age 102 yesterday, February 6 2016.

Irwin Corey was born Irwin Eli Cohen on July 29 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. His father deserted the family and ultimately his mother was forced to place young Irwin and his siblings in Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum released him when he was only 13 years old. Young Irwin rode the rails to Los Angeles, California. There he attended Belmont High School for only one year. During the Great Depression he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He became the featherweight boxing champion of the CCC. Working his way back East, he became a button maker and joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. It would be the union that would lead him to a career as a performer. In 1938 he was hired to help write, as well as perform in, the union's musical revue Pins and Needles. It was not long afterwards the he developed his own style of wild, improvisational comedy.

Mr. Corey appeared in the Borscht Belt circuit production Pots and Pans. He began his night club career at the Village Vanguard and afterwards played such places as the Ruban Bleu, The Cotillion Room, the Copacabana, and Chicago's Palmer House. It was folk singer Richard Dyer-Bennet who gave him the title "professor" after hearing Irwin Corey give a disjointed lecture about Shakespeare. Irwin Corey made his Broadway debut in the revue New Faces of 1943.  Later in the Forties he appeared on Broadway in Heaven on Earth and Happy as Larry. On radio he appeared on The Charlie McCarthy Show and other shows. Irwin Corey made his television debut in an edition of Cavalcade of Stars in 1950. During World War II he briefly served in the United States Army. When an Army psychiatrist asked Mr. Corey if he was a homosexual and Mr. Corey replied, "That is none of your business," his Army career was pretty much over.

Irwin Corey's politics were always extremely leftist, so that in the Fifties he fell victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Regardless, he remained busy for much of the decade. He appeared on Broadway in Flahooley and Mrs. McThing. He appeared on television on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, The Jack Paar Tonight Show, Omnibus, and The Phil Silvers Show.

Professor Corey's career rebounded in the Sixties. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. He also appeared on such shows as The Steve Allen Playhouse, The Jackie Gleason Show: The American Scene Magazine, The Hollywood Palace, The Pat Boone Show, The Kraft Music Hall, The Donald O'Connor Show, Playboy After Dark, The Andy Williams Show, The David Frost Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. He made his film debut in How to Commit Marriage (1969).

The Seventies saw Irwin Corey continue to be quite busy. He appeared on such shows as Funny Farm, Everything Goes, The Mike Douglas Show, and Doc. He appeared on Broadway in Thieves. He appeared in the feature films Foreplay (1975), Car Wash (1976), Chatterbox! (1977), Thieves (1977--reprising his role on Broadway), and Fairy Tales (1978). Perhaps Professor Corey's most notable appearance in the Seventies was on April 18 1974, when he accepted the National Book Award Fiction Citation for Thomas Pynchon for his novel Gravity's Rainbow. While Mr. Pynchon did not know Professor Corey personally, the two had friends in common and they convinced the writer to let Professor Corey accept the award. The result was several minutes of the professor's best material.

In the Eighties Professor Corey appeared in the films Hungry i reunion (1981), The Comeback Trail (1982), Stuck on You! (1982), Crackers (1984), The Perils of P.K. (1986), and That's Adequate (1989). On television he appeared on such shows as The Edge of Night, Late Night with David Letterman, The New Hollywood Squares, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

In the Nineties Irwin Corey appeared in the films Jack (1996), I'm Not Rappaport (1996), and The Boys Behind the Desk (2000). In the Naughts he appeared in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001). In 2004 he appeared on Broadway in Sly Fox. Fittingly enough, Irwin Corey' last on screen appearance was in the documentary Irwin & Fran (2013), centred on Professor Corey and his wife of 71 years, Fran.

Professor Irwin Corey was quite possibly one of the most brilliant comic minds of all time. His act was entirely extemporised, all the while remaining extremely funny. All that was necessary was for Professor Corey to have a topic on which he could pontificate, and he would come up with some of the funniest material ever. Such was his wit that he could hold his own against even the obstinate hecklers or detractors. He was well known for his many witticisms, such as "If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going" and "Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure."

Not only was Irwin Corey positively brilliant, but he had an extraordinarily long career. He continued to work well into his nineties. He even took up panhandling on East 35th Street, near the Manhattan exit of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, asking for change for motorists. Professor Corey hardly needed the money. In fact, he donated all the money he got from panhandling to a charity that provided medical supplies for children in Cuba. Professor Irwin Corey was an incredibly brilliant performer with an extraordinarily long career. As the Professor he might have sounded like he was spouting utter nonsense, but in the end he was easily the smartest guy in any room.

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