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by Bennett Muraskin
“THE WORLD’S FOREMOST AUTHORITY,” Irwin Corey, has died at the ripe old age of 102. His shtik was to impersonate a professor spouting intellectual gibberish. He typically started his shpil with “However,” and, after a barrage of wordy non-sequiturs, ended it by asking “What was the question?” Typically in the course of his routine he would take questions from his audience and show off his improvisational abilities in response. His comedy was meant to deflate the pretensions of bombasts and know-it-alls. “The role of the artist,” he said, “is to be a rebel.”
Corey was born Irwin Cohen in Brooklyn to a poor family. After his father disappeared, his mother placed him and his three siblings in a Jewish orphanage, paying for his room and board so they would not be adopted. After one year of high school, he left New York, riding the rails to California. There he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program for unemployed youth. Returning to New York in the mid-thirties, he became a button-maker and loyal member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
In 1938, the ILGWU recruited Corey to write and appear in its Broadway musical review, Pins and Needles. His budding career as a comic was interrupted by a six month stint in the Army, where he finagled a discharge by pretending to be a homosexual.
By the late 1940s, Corey developed the “professor” character, performing in Borscht Belt hotels, nightclubs and left-wing venues. Corey was close to the Communist-inclined International Workers Order. The anti-Communist blacklist set back his career during the 1950s, but he still managed to perform in smaller venues. By the 1960 and ’70s, he made it into Broadway shows, Hollywood movies, TV sit-coms, variety and game shows, and as a guest on talk shows hosted by Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and David Letterman. He became friends with Hugh Hefner and often performed at Playboy Clubs. After playing the role of Jesus in an off-Broadway play, he commented, “It was a piece of typecasting for a short Jewish atheist.”
Corey pulled off his most famous stunt in 1974 at the National Book Awards dinner, where he spouted nonsense while pretending to be Thomas Pynchon and collected his award. Pynchon, a reclusive novelist who kept his photo out of the press, was in on the joke. The other award-winner that evening was Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Renowned New Yorker theater critic Kenneth Tynan described Corey as “a cultural clown, a parody of literacy, a travesty of all that our civilization holds dear and one of the funniest grotesques in America. He is a Chaplin clown with a college education.”
COREY’S FAVORITE comedians were Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winter and Dick Shawn. Bruce, if fact, was one of Corey’s biggest fans. A documentary film about his life, Irwin and Fran, was released in 2013, narrated by Susan Sarandon, with commentary from comedian and political activist Dick Gregory. The “Fran“ ‘ in title was Francis Corey, Irwin’s wife for seventy years. They met at a communist summer camp.
Upon his centennial in 2014, Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer declared it to be “Irwin Corey Day.” A celebration was held in the Actor’s Temple.
Skimming through Henry Foner’s book, For Better or Verse: Songs and Poems, I came across the following: “Henry, together with the late Norman Franklin, worked with their friend Irwin Corey, on a book entitled Sex : Its Origin and Application: An illustrated lecture by Professor Irwin Corey, The World’s Foremost Authority, which was published by The Citadel Press, New York, 1960.” The book costs $600 on Amazon! Can anyone out there give us a glance?
Corey was an inveterate radical, for better or worse. On one hand, he championed the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther sentenced to life for murdering a police offer, a crime many believe he did not commit. Corey also supported Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency. On the other, he spoke out on behalf of those who think that the 9/11 attack was an “inside job.”
Corey spent years panhandling near his home in Manhattan in his spare time, dressed as a homeless man, using the contributions he received to support a fund that buys medical supplies for Cuban children. At the same time, he was an uncritical admirer of Fidel Castro. His views on Israel and Zionism appeared to be entirely negative.
Asked by a reporter if he was proud to be a Jew, he replied, “I was born a Jew. It is not a choice.” Yet his humor of pretentious doubletalk and distracted philosophizing was a perfect parody of of Jewish intellectual striving -- and the pompous authority it sometimes yields.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.