Sunday, November 15, 2015
The Great Jewish Comedians: 101-Year-Old "Professor" Irwin Corey Performs and Reflects on His Favorite Comedians
"Professor" Irwin Corey is an American comic, film actor and activist, often billed as "The World's Foremost Authority". He introduced his unscripted, improvisational style of stand-up comedy at the well-known San Francisco club, the hungry i.
Corey was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. Poverty-stricken, his parents were forced to place him in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, where Corey remained until his early teens, when he rode the rails out to California, and enrolled himself at Belmont High School in Los Angeles.
During the Great Depression he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps and, while working his way back East, became a featherweight Golden Gloves boxing champion.
Corey supported left-wing politics. "When I tried to join the Communist Party, they called me an anarchist." He was blacklisted in the 1950s, the effects of which he says still linger to this day. (Corey never returned to Late Night with David Letterman after his first appearance in 1982, which he claimed was a result of the blacklist still being in effect.)
During the 1960 election, Corey campaigned for president on Hugh Hefner's Playboy ticket. Corey was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
From the late 1940s he cultivated his "Professor" character. Dressed in seedy formal wear and sneakers, with his bushy hair sprouting in all directions, Corey would amble on stage in a preoccupied manner, then begin his monologue with "However ..."
He created a new style of double-talk comedy. He would season his speech with many long and florid, but authentic, words. The professor would then launch into nonsensical observations about anything under the sun, but seldom actually making sense. Changing topics suddenly, he would wander around the stage, pontificating all the while. His quick wit allowed him to hold his own against the most stubborn straight man, heckler or interviewer.
In this video clip from an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Show, Corey delivers one of his classic bits, answering the question "Why do you wear tennis shoes?" If you listen carefully, you'll hear him attribute an expression to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.
This clip is followed by a report on his 100th birthday celebration in 2014 at The Actors' Temple.
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(A tip of the kippah to Martin Rosenfeld for sharing Irwin Corey's words of wisdom with us.)