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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Who Am the World’s Foremost Authority?
A Lesson from Professor Irwin Corey

"However..." the word that opens many of his routines, might just as well be used to describe Professor Irwin Corey’s entire life.

Few show business careers have lasted as long, or crossed such a wide spectrum, as Prof. Corey’s. He’s done vaudeville and Broadway, been on television and radio, in the movies and on record albums, appeared in smoke-filled nightclubs and at both the Lincoln and Kennedy Centers. And for the past six-plus decades, he’s been confusing people.

Trying to capture Prof. Corey’s career in wide-scope is a little like trying to lasso a tornado. There’s simply too much to tell–especially given that Corey, now 87, is still moving. Earlier this year, he appeared as Charlie, the skid-row informant, in Woody Allen’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Last May he played a string of dates at the New York Comedy Club. And two days after we spoke he was off to Atlantic City to do a show at the Sands.

"Professor Irwin Corey" may not be a familiar name to the young people of today, but he’s a landmark. Beginning in the 30s, he singlehandedly, I dare say, invented improvisational comedy as we know it. Corey doesn’t script his act–he just goes onstage and riffs. But he more than riffs. As "The World’s Foremost Authority," he lectures in a rambling mishmash of important-sounding double-talk (injected with wise one-liners) that at least seems to be about something very important. He can ad lib Shakespeare, scrutinize the Bible or explain, eventually, why people wear shoes.

He’s also, over the years, added a number of aphorisms to the American lexicon (though he rarely gets proper credit). "Wherever you go, there you are," was not first uttered by Buckaroo Banzai. And it wasn’t Al Capone who instructed, "You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word." I’m not real sure who "If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going" has been attributed to, but that’s Corey’s as well.

Forgive me for going on here, but in Corey, you could say, you find not only a history of entertainment in the 20th century, but a history of the 20th century, period.

Fran, Corey’s wife of 61 years, let me into their beautiful, E. 30s house. "He’s napping," she whispered, as she led me to the living room, "on the floor. He prefers to sleep on the floor."

I took a seat as she roused him. It was a comfortable place, the walls covered with paintings and memorabilia, the coffee table piled with scrapbooks, photographs, newspaper clippings and thick history tomes.

Corey’s son Richard–an artist and comedian in his own right, as well as the guardian of the Irwin Corey archives–showed up soon thereafter, to help out with some of the details.

Corey’s a small man, his voice raspy, his eyes still bright and sly behind glasses, his trademark unkempt hair combed straight back, his equally trademark threadbare suit, baggy pants and absurdly large string tie hidden away, replaced that afternoon with a striped t-shirt. He’s not nearly so crazed and manic as his stage persona suggests. And while "the Professor" may bullshit his way through every lecture, Corey himself is extremely well-read and intelligent. He’d have to be to pull it off.

As Corey got himself together, Richard provided a quick bio. Irwin Corey was born in Brooklyn in 1914. He grew up in local orphanages until he was 13, then rode the rails out to California. While working his way back East, he became a featherweight Golden Gloves boxing champ (retiring immediately after knocking an opponent out cold).

In 1938, back in New York, he got a job writing and performing in Pins and Needles, a musical comedy revue. He lost his job there, he says, for encouraging people to join the union. ("But it was a union show!" he exclaimed.) A few years later, he was working on New Faces of 1943. The New Faces revues were among the most popular shows on Broadway in those days, springboarding dozens of careers. Corey wrote and appeared in most of the sketches.

At the same time, he’d become a regular at the newly opened Village Vanguard. It reached the point, he says, where he’d do New Faces, then have to rush down to the Vanguard, where he was expected to do three more shows that night.

His stint on Broadway was interrupted when he was drafted–even though it took the Army a while to get their hands on him.

"Three times I was called in, then rejected as 4-F," he said. "When they called me back a fourth time, I went in with a letter from the producer, saying I was indispensable to the show. The guy at the draft board told me, ‘This is wartime–there’s no entertainment!’ and shoved me straight through, without even giving me a physical."

Corey was out again six months later (well, six months and three weeks, which meant he lost a bet) after telling the Army shrinks he was a homosexual. He picked up where he left off, back in the clubs. His stories from those days are both funny and sad, in a Broadway Danny Rose sort of way–working for $5 a night, only to discover later that the booking agent was pocketing $95, etc.

"A friend of mine said, ‘I stopped by the club tonight, and you were running all over the place, up in the audience, everywhere.’ And I told him, ‘That wasn’t part of the act! I was being chased by some son of a bitch in the crowd who didn’t like the way I insulted him.’" Then he added, by way of explanation, "I always hated it when people left for the bathroom in the middle of an act."

It was around this same time, the early 40s, when the moniker "Professor" was first bestowed upon him by then-popular singer/lutist Richard Dyer-Bennet, in response to Corey’s popular (and brilliant) faux-Shakespeare routine. Dyer-Bennet was later ratted out to HUAC by folksinger Burl Ives (who was in the habit of ratting people out, and whom Corey refers to nowadays as "Loose Lips").

Before long, Corey found himself blacklisted as well.

Over the years, his act evolved into a tidal wave of doublespeak–often in response to audience questions. He may begin by telling you what he doesn’t want to talk about–then spend the entire set talking about it. In satirizing the political and academic windbags he saw around him, Corey transformed psychobabble into an art form. To listen to those old routines now, he might well be mimicking any number of contemporary politicians.

Given that, it’s interesting to note that in 1959 Corey, backed by Hugh Hefner, ran for president himself–on the Playboy ticket.

"I still have the buttons and cards they handed out," he said. "My campaign slogans were things like, ‘Vote for Irwin and get on the dole,’ and ‘Corey will run for any party, with a bottle in his hand.’"

He didn’t win, obviously–otherwise America would be a very different place now–but he did pull in some 4000 write-in votes in Chicago alone, along with running up some impressive room service tabs.

In the early 60s, Corey’s Professor act had become a sharply honed jewel of long-winded pomposity. If a club manager asked him for eight minutes, he’d go on three times that long. What’s more, he’d become infamous for his absurdly long introductions for other performers.

"I was introducing Tom Lehrer one night," he said, "and I must’ve gone on for 20 minutes. When he finally did come onstage, he opened his act by saying, ‘And in conclusion...’"

He pulled the same trick introducing Don Adams. After moving to another club across town where he was supposed to do three shows a night, Adams actually requested that Corey introduce him–"because he only felt like doing two shows."

"Hey," Corey said, "I got a letter that Lenny Bruce sent me on the back of an envelope." He asked Richard to go pull it off the wall. "There was a job that I recommended for him in London, because I couldn’t make it at that time. And while he was there, he recommended me! Not knowing that I recommended him. I finally did work there, because they wouldn’t let him back in the country the second time. So Peter Cook got in touch with me, and I got the job there. Variety said, ‘The worst American comedian ever to come to London. If he doesn’t change his routine, he won’t live out his engagement.’" Then his eyes twinkled. "I was held over for seven weeks. At the end of Kenneth Tynan’s review of the act, he says, ‘I beg you to be there.’ A guy in the New Statesman says, ‘Irwin Corey is unique and glorious.’ And one guy says, ‘Like no one else I’ve ever seen, in a profession that tends more and more to be mass produced, Professor Corey mingles the wise, the charming and the farouche.’ Farouche is a French word. It means wild and shy."

One thing Corey was never very shy about, however, was politics. From his earliest union days to the blacklist to the present (presidential bid aside), he’s been mighty outspoken.

"It was never a conscious decision," he said of his admittedly strong beliefs. "It was never something I set out to do." Nowadays his walls are adorned with pictures of Corey posing with Castro (he gave $50,000 to send medicine to Cuba). He’s also made large contributions to the Mumia Abu-Jamal defense fund, as well as the Communist Party.

In some ways, being blacklisted continues to haunt him ("Though it’s more of a gray list now," he told me). He says he was never asked back to Letterman after his first appearance there in 1982, because the blacklist was still in effect at NBC. Being blacklisted also earned him a hefty FBI file.

Funny thing is, Richard told me later, Corey got hold of his file, only to discover that it was a collection of newspaper reviews. "So it’s like the government was running a clipping service for us," Richard said.

Much of his political outrage these days is aimed at Israel, so much so that he’s made hefty contributions to Palestinian relief efforts.

"You know, in 1492," he began, "when the settlers came to this continent, they killed the Indians and took their land. Then they brought black people to this land and made slaves out of them. And then George Washington, who was the first president of the United States, had 250 slaves–which is a felony. At that time–and I use that expression ‘at that time,’ for the simple reason that you cannot say, it was okay to kill the Jews at that time. You know? A felony does not lose its dimension by the passing of time... And I always say, if God wanted the Jews to have Palestine, why’d he give the Chinese a whole continent? Understand that? The fact is, East Prussia was part of Germany. By 1914, there was a thing called the Polish Corridor, which allowed Poland access to the Baltic–it was a land-locked country. After World War II, they gave them East Prussia. They gave the Poles East Prussia–they could’ve given the Jews the Rhineland, and the world couldn’t’ve said anything. After all, they took the lives and the property of 600,000 German Jews. What happened to that property? Who has it now? Israel says that God gave them the land that now belongs to Palestine. That little piece of land. We are part of a solar system. Nine planets revolving around the sun. There are billions and billions of planets throughout the universe, in billions and billions of galaxies. How did God even find this planet, let alone that little tiny piece of land to give them?"

One of Corey’s most notorious public appearances came on April 18, 1974, when he showed up at Alice Tully Hall to accept the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow on behalf of Thomas Pynchon.

"Thomas Guinzberg [of the Viking Press] first suggested the idea," he says, "and Pynchon approved it."

So, after being mis-introduced (as "Robert Corey"), the little man with the wild hair and the rumpled suit walked to the podium and addressed some of the most esteemed figures in American publishing and literature:

"However...I accept this financial stipulation–ah–stipend in behalf of Richard Python for the great contribution which to quote from some of the missiles which he has contributed... Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure. However you say–WHAT THE–what does this 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 does not hold water.

"Comrades–friends, we are gathered here not only to accept in behalf of one recluse–one who has found that the world in itself which seems to be a time not of the toad–to quote Studs TurKAL. And many people ask ‘Who are Studs TurKAL?’ It’s not ‘Who are Studs TurKAL?’ it’s ‘Who AM Studs TurKAL?’..."

And so forth. Corey’s speech was accentuated by a nude man who streaked across the stage as he spoke. The audience, needless to say, was dumbfounded by the entire spectacle.

"Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were there," Corey said. "They read some poetry before I went on. So the next day, the guy from The New York Times writes, ‘Oh, to hear Hume Cronyn read such beautiful poetry, and then to have...this?’" He smirked. "Ehh, but I had to run. I had to get downtown to do another show that night. But I got paid $500 for it and I had a good time."

Throughout the 70s and 80s, Corey became a mainstay on variety and talk shows–Andy Williams, Mike Douglas, Merv, the Tonight Show, all of them–as well as occasional game show and sitcom stints. He was also in a long string of movies–How to Commit Marriage, Thieves–perhaps most notably as the Mad Bomber in Car Wash. (When I told him the movie was currently being remade, he sighed, "Well, there go my residuals.") More recently, he’s been in the NPR radio adaptation of Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer with Jerry Stiller, Sally Lemay, Brother Theodore (a man he’s often compared with) and a host of others.

"Most everyone who was involved with that is dead now," he said. When I pointed out that Jerry Stiller was still alive, he scoffed, "Ahh, Jerry Stiller, and that wife of his–Ann Meara? They’re mediocre at best. But look at them!"

He was also in Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, with Robin Williams.

"All my scenes were cut out," he told me. "You see me once, sitting in the stands at the graduation ceremony. But I’m still in the credits as ‘Poppy,’ and so I still get residuals from that. I made more on those residuals than I made for the movie."

At the time of our meeting, there were no movie roles waiting in his immediate future. He was fine with that, though–there was still plenty to do. The Atlantic City gig was coming up in a couple days.

Before I left, I asked Prof. Corey–whose mind and shtick, even at 87, seemed as sharp as ever–what it is that’s kept him going all these years.

"Oh, I don’t plan anything," he told me. "I never planned anything. You can’t. What, I’m gonna save this money here and buy this thing over here? It never works out that way. Why do I keep going?" He spread his arms and looked around. "Because there’s still air around, there’s still earth under our feet. I just go from show to show when I can."

For more Irwin Corey information and merchandise, visit