“Professor” Irwin Corey, the cult comedian who perfected pseudo-intellectual babble into an art form, died on Monday. Billed as “the World’s Foremost Authority,” Corey performed his improvised routines in the persona of a pretentious and disheveled academic whose lectures abruptly digressed into florid nonsense. A frequent guest of late-night TV and variety shows, he performed stand-up from the 1930s all the way into the 2010s, in the process earning a devoted fanbase and a counterculture following that responded to the subversive, anti-authoritarian slant of his comedy; he counted Lenny Bruce, Damon Runyon, and Thomas Pynchon among his many admirers. Corey was 102.
Born Irwin Cohen in Brooklyn in 1914, Corey was raised in a Jewish orphanage until his teens. During the Great Depression, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was around this time that he began performing on what was then the vaudeville circuit. He would develop his “Professor” act over the next decade. In an era when men shined their shoes and parted their hair, Corey cut an anarchic figure, ambling on stage in a ragged suit and string tie to begin his act. By the 1950s, he was a regular of the Hungry I, the legendary San Francisco night club that also helped launch the careers of Bruce, Bill Cosby, and Mort Sahl.
At the height of his popularity, Corey was a regular presence on television and a favorite of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, rarely appearing out of character. In 1974, he was sent in Pynchon’s place to accept the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow without explanation; his rambling, satirical speech “on behalf of, uh, Richard Python,” which was interrupted by a streaker, remains one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the storied literary award.
Outside of his stand-up persona, Corey was also a theater actor, and appeared in Broadway productions throughout his career; his first was a revue called The New Faces Of 1943, and his last was an Arthur Penn-directed revival of The Sly Fox in 2004, with Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role. His also acted in film, mostly recently in The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, directed by his longtime fan Woody Allen, who is said to have “borrowed” some of the Professor’s material early in his own stand-up career. Because of his often outspoken left-wing politics, Corey was reportedly blacklisted early in his career. In recent years, he performed at Occupy Wall Street events and raised money for Cuban orphanages by panhandling near his Manhattan carriage house. Frances Corey, his wife of 70 years, died in 2011.