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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Who Am the Worlds
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
Coreys entire life.
Few show business careers have lasted as long, or crossed
such a wide spectrum, as Prof. Coreys. Hes 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, hes
been confusing people.
to capture Prof. Coreys career in wide-scope is a little like
trying to lasso a tornado. Theres simply too much to tellespecially
given that Corey, now 87, is still moving. Earlier this year, he appeared
as Charlie, the skid-row informant, in Woody Allens 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 hes a landmark. Beginning
in the 30s, he singlehandedly, I dare say, invented improvisational
comedy as we know it. Corey doesnt script his acthe just
goes onstage and riffs. But he more than riffs. As "The Worlds
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.
Hes 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 wasnt Al Capone who instructed, "You can get further
with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word."
Im not real sure who "If we dont change direction soon,
well end up where were going" has been attributed to,
but thats Coreys 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, Coreys wife of 61 years, let me into their
beautiful, E. 30s house. "Hes 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
Coreys son Richardan artist and comedian in
his own right, as well as the guardian of the Irwin Corey archivesshowed
up soon thereafter, to help out with some of the details.
Coreys 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. Hes 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.
Hed 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, hed become a regular at the newly
opened Village Vanguard. It reached the point, he says, where hed
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 draftedeven
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 wartimetheres
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 wayworking 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 wasnt part of the
act! I was being chased by some son of a bitch in the crowd who
didnt 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 Coreys 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 doublespeakoften
in response to audience questions. He may begin by telling you what
he doesnt want to talk aboutthen 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
Given that, its interesting to note that in 1959
Corey, backed by Hugh Hefner, ran for president himselfon the
"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 didnt win, obviouslyotherwise America would
be a very different place nowbut he did pull in some 4000 write-in
votes in Chicago alone, along with running up some impressive room service
In the early 60s, Coreys Professor act had become
a sharply honed jewel of long-winded pomposity. If a club manager asked
him for eight minutes, hed go on three times that long. Whats
more, hed become infamous for his absurdly long introductions
for other performers.
"I was introducing Tom Lehrer one night," he
said, "and I mustve 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 couldnt 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 wouldnt
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 doesnt change
his routine, he wont live out his engagement." Then
his eyes twinkled. "I was held over for seven weeks. At
the end of Kenneth Tynans 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 Ive 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), hes 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). Hes
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 its 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 its 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 hes made hefty contributions to Palestinian relief
"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 slaveswhich is a felony.
At that timeand 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, whyd 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 Balticit was a land-locked country. After World War II,
they gave them East Prussia. They gave the Poles East Prussiathey
couldve given the Jews the Rhineland, and the world couldntve
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 Coreys most notorious public appearances
came on April 18, 1974, when he showed up at Alice Tully Hall to accept
the National Book Award for Gravitys 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
"However...I accept this financial stipulationahstipend
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 sayWHAT THEwhat 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 does not hold water.
"Comradesfriends, we are gathered here not
only to accept in behalf of one recluseone who has found that
the world in itself which seems to be a time not of the toadto
quote Studs TurKAL. And many people ask Who are Studs TurKAL?
Its not Who are Studs TurKAL? its Who
AM Studs TurKAL?..."
And so forth. Coreys 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
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Corey became a mainstay on
variety and talk showsAndy Williams, Mike Douglas, Merv, the Tonight
Show, all of themas well as occasional game show and sitcom
stints. He was also in a long string of moviesHow to Commit
Marriage, Thievesperhaps 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,
hes been in the NPR radio adaptation of Ben Katchors Julius
Knipl, Real Estate Photographer with Jerry Stiller, Sally Lemay,
Brother Theodore (a man hes often compared with) and a host of
"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 hisAnn
Meara? Theyre mediocre at best. But look at them!"
He was also in Francis Ford Coppolas 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 Im
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, thoughthere
was still plenty to do. The Atlantic City gig was coming up in a couple
Before I left, I asked Prof. Coreywhose mind and
shtick, even at 87, seemed as sharp as everwhat it is thats
kept him going all these years.
"Oh, I dont plan anything," he told me.
"I never planned anything. You cant. What, Im 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 theres still air around, theres still earth
under our feet. I just go from show to show when I can."
For more Irwin Corey information and merchandise, visit