The “World’s Foremost Authority” and oldest living stand-up comedian, Professor Irwin Corey, has died. Corey was 102.
Praised by Lenny Bruce as one of the brightest voices in comedy, Corey was born July 29, 1914, in Brooklyn. Eight decades before the “World Champion” Judah Friedlander took on any audience member’s questions and the absurd doublespeak of Reggie Watts, Corey was dazzling and confusing audiences with his own colorful explanations about anything and everything, seemingly saying nothing.
A teen during the Great Depression, Corey left the orphan asylum in NYC where he’d grown up (despite both of his parents still living), riding boxcar trains out to California to enter high school in Los Angeles, working for the Civilian Conservation Corps and taking up boxing, becoming a Golden Gloves champ. He began performing back in NYC in the late 1930 at the Village Vanguard and other nightclubs, while also working as a union organizer. His leftist political ideas would see him meeting Fidel Castro and also getting blackballed for a time in show business.
But he also managed to perform on the radio with Edgar Bergen, with the USO in Europe, on Broadway, on TV talk shows hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson and David Letterman, in sitcoms such as Sgt. Bilko and variety shows such as The Smothers Brothers.
Cavett told The New York Times for a 2008 profile of Corey: “I feel like I’ve been watching Irwin Corey forever. I saw him in the 1950s, and I thought he was old then.”
When Corey had to miss a gig at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, he had Dick Gregory fill in for him, which helped open the door for black comedians to perform for mainstream audiences everywhere in America.
When Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award in 1974 for “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Pynchon asked Corey to go in his stead and deliver the acceptance speech.
Corey was married to Fran Corey for 70 years. She preceded him in death in 2011. A documentary about them came out a few years later, Irwin & Fran, to help mark Corey’s 100th birthday.
NPR also celebrated the occasion.
Rest in Peace, Professor Corey.