Once booked as “The World’s Foremost Authority,” and arguably one of the oldest comedians alive today, “Professor” Irwin Corey is a game changer. He has transcended through Vaudeville, Broadway, radio, TV, and movies. He shared the big screen with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason in the only movie the two ever made together, How to Commit Marriage. In 1960, he ran for president on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy ticket. At 102, he still makes stage appearances, and in his free time, he panhandles for money to send Cuban children medical supplies. Corey is a one of a kind.
Like many comedians, the Professor’s childhood was hard. Born in 1914, his father left the family early on, and his mother, stricken with tuberculosis, sent her children to be raised at the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. For $30 a month, she paid for their stay there to avoid adoption. While at the asylum, Corey developed his knack for comedy by making the other children laugh. Around 15 years old, he hopped on a boxcar to Los Angeles and enrolled himself in Belmont High School.
He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a byproduct of FDR’s New Deal for single, detached men. Through the CCC, he boxed and was quite successful at it as an 112 pound fighter. Eventually, he got his taste for the stage while performing in Pots and Pans on the Borscht Circuit, later known as the Catskills. By 1938, he was in New York City and writing for comedy revues. He started to hit the nightclubs, such as the Village Vanguard.
Corey is also known for his leftist political views. He met his late wife of 70 years while in a communist camp. Later, he would mention how his affiliation with the party had him blacklisted. He also was drafted into World War II, but the comic managed to get discharged on the account of convincing a psychiatrist he was gay. He was able to keep working and became a writer and performer for the New Faces of 1943, a Broadway comedy revue.
The Professor developed his comic persona in the 1940s. In his act, even today, he wears a disheveled tuxedo with sneakers. His hair stands in all directions. He pulls out pieces of papers almost as though he has forgotten what he came out to say. Sometimes, he looks at the paper and smirks like he is reading a secret joke. Then, he begins, “However…” At the top of the bit, he starts with a word that usually comes in the middle or as a rebuttal. Corey is the king of doubletalk, a skill which plays on words to provoke confusion and amusement.
He earned the name “Professor” by using big words without really saying anything at all. In 1974, he accepted the National Book Fiction Award Citation on the requested behalf of Thomas Pynchon for his book, Gravity’s Rainbow. Corey had this to say in the acceptance speech, “Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure. However you say – WHAT THE – what does this mean… in relation to the tabulation whereby we must once again realize that the great fiction story is now being rehearsed before our very eyes, in the Nixon administration… indicating that only an American writer can receive…the award for fiction, unlike Solzinitski whose fiction doesn’t hold water.” His words, while nonsensical, were still able to take a jab at the Nixon administration.
Even at 100, Corey has maintained his improvisational and quick witted style. On his birthday, he said, “Ten years ago, we had Johnny Cash. We had Bob Hope and Steve Jobs. Today, 10 years later, there’s no cash. There’s no hope. There’s no jobs.” Eighty some years in the biz, the guy still has it, and it is practically poetry.