“Professor” Irwin Corey, the wild-haired comic who billed himself as “The World's Foremost Authority” and proceeded to amuse and confuse his audiences with his patented stream of pseudo-intellectual musings, doublespeak and nonsequiturs, has died. He was 102.
Corey died Monday at his home in New York City.
Over a career that spanned more than 70 years, Corey performed in vaudeville, radio, television, films, Broadway, nightclubs and Las Vegas showrooms.
Clad in his trademark swallow-tailed coat, string tie and sneakers, Corey was known for what critic Leonard Feather once described as his “mock didactic manner” and “rambling pseudo-historical explanations to which there is usually some sort of crazy logic.”
“Did you realize,” Corey told his audience at the Lighthouse in 1977, “that there are more Albanians in Hermosa Beach than there are in all of Ireland?”
Abortion, the professor explained later in his “lecture,” “has been part of the American system since its conception.”
Corey devoted the last half of his act at the Lighthouse to taking questions from the audience. Asked his opinion of the Indianapolis 500, he snapped, “They're all innocent.”
The zany, double-talking comedian first gained national exposure on radio, including appearing on Edgar Bergen's show as Charlie McCarthy's tutor. But the colorful Corey was made for television.
From the ‘50s through the ‘70s, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason variety shows and made the rounds of the Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas talk shows.
Corey even ran for president in 1960, a mock campaign that grew out of his appearances at the Playboy Club in Chicago.
With Playboy's backing, Corey campaign buttons proclaimed that “Irwin will run for any party and he'll bring his own bottle.”
Posters declared “Corey is the only candidate named Irwin.”
Playboy even hired a sound truck to cruise the North Side of Chicago blaring martial music and announcing to voters that “Relief is just a ballot away — elect Corey — then go on relief!”
“That was a lot of fun,” he told the Associated Press in 2004. “We had parades. They put my campaign manager in jail for disturbing the peace.”
Although Corey never reached the heights of many fellow comics of his generation, no less a cultural authority than theater critic Kenneth Tynan once described him 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 [Charlie] Chaplin's clown with a college education.”
Which must be why the good professor was asked to accept the National Book Award for fiction on behalf of Thomas Pynchon, for “Gravity's Rainbow,” at Lincoln Center in New York in 1974.
Launching into his long-winded, double-talking acceptance speech, Corey said: “I accept this financial stipulation — ah, stipend — in behalf of, uh, Richard Python, for the great contribution, and 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 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.”
The uniquely qualified Corey was the go-to-man for just about any event.
At a Friars Club roast of comedian-actor Richard Belzer, Corey was asked to close the show, whose dais included Robert Klein, Bill Maher, Jerry Stiller and other prominent comedians.
As roast master Paul Shaffer explained to Corey: “You are the hottest, the hippest, the funniest. Not very many people could do it. You can do it.”
So the professor launched into what he did best and, in a trademark bit he first did on the Steve Allen show in the mid-1950s, he was carried off stage in mid-stream-of-consciousness.
Born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1914, Corey and his five brothers and sisters became wards of the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum.
During the Depression, Corey worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps and, he proudly noted later, became the CCC's 112-pound boxing champion.
His show business career was launched after he landed a minor role in a Borscht Belt show called “Pots and Pans.”
Corey told the Associated Press in 2004 that he turned to comedy in the 1930s after auditioning for a play by doing the soliloquy from “Hamlet.” The casting director laughed so hard that he told Corey, “You should be a comedian.”
Corey later amassed a number of Broadway credits, including “Heaven on Earth,” “Happy as Larry,” “Mrs. McThing” and “Thieves,” as well as roles in off-Broadway productions. Among his film credits are “How to Commit a Marriage,” “Car Wash,” “Thieves” and Woody Allen's “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.”
One of Corey's most recent stage roles came in 2004 — as the doddering clerk in a Broadway revival of the comedy “Sly Fox,” starring Richard Dreyfuss and Eric Stoltz, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York.
Nearing 90, Corey was probably the oldest actor on Broadway at the time, but he proved he still had it.
Although he didn't appear on stage until the second act, the New York Daily News said Corey “practically steals his scene,” and the New York Times noted that he “makes a winningly precise art of being addled.”
On into his 90s, “the world's foremost authority” was still being booked for comedy gigs.
Corey's wife of 70 years, Fran, died in 2011.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.