It was quite a surprise to see Professor Irwin Corey’s obituary in Wednesday’s news, because we thought he was dead. That’s an old and rather rude show business joke, but we mean it respectfully and hope he would have appreciated the absurdist humor. By the time Corey died on Monday at the last laugh old age of 102 most of the youngsters out there didn’t know the name, but back in the days of variety shows and PG-rated celebrity roasts and smoke-filled late night talk shows he used to crack us up, and his passing marks an end to a subtler and slyer and slightly less angry era of American comedy.
Corey was a left-winger even by show business standards, but that wasn’t readily apparent from most of his comedy. He grew up in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, got his start in show business with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s annual musical revue, and carried the resulting political perspective through the rest of his days, but his humor was mostly apolitical and altogether too convoluted to figure out what it might imply. By the time we started catching his act on television in the late ’60s and early ’70s the high school drop-out had reinvented himself as an eminent professor of some unnamed discipline, always introduced as “The World’s Foremost Authority,” and he would present himself in a black swallow-tailed coat and string tie and high-topped Chuck Converse All-Stars, his gray hair running wilder than Albert Einstein’s ever did, then starting spewing the most inspired academic-sounding gibberish. He’d throw in jokes about how heat expands and cold contracts and that’s why the days are longer in the summer, and how if we don’t change direction we’ll wind up where we’re going, and he had a great bit of physical humor where he’d forget what he was going to say and eventually reach for his notes and then crack up at whatever he’d written, which he’d never get around to reading, and he’d usually begin these monologues by saying “However.”
Any youngster who comes across these routines on YouTube might take them as brilliant satire of the meaningless mumbo-jumbo that today’s liberal academia spews out, but at the time he started to develop the act way back in the ’40s it probably worked just as well as spoof of the meaningless mumbo-jumbo of the more conservative academia of his youth. There was a distinctly vaudevillian flavor to it, like the even older comics who were still killing on TV, but also something very modern, like the sophisticated younger comics in the suits and ties who were starting to take over, and something as anarchic as both the Marx Brothers that had come before and the National Lampoon punks who would come later. Put in any context it was pretty funny stuff, and a sly warning about the world’s foremost authorities that has always been and ever will be worth heeding.
The variety shows disappeared and the celebrity roasts went on cable and started featuring raunchy women talking about their privates and the late night talk shows weren’t booking acts with roots in the ’40s, but Corey would still occasionally show up over the decades. He did get more explicitly political, and his lifelong leftism descended into conspiracy theorizing that was hard to distinguish from his more deliberate attempts at absurdism, but he’d still crack us up during our occasional encounters on the internet. He kept performing into his 80s and 90s and even his early 100s, but apparently his last performances were on behalf of the New York City sidewalk passersby that he would panhandle. He didn’t need the money, as the inveterate anti-capitliast had invested his earnings well enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood, so he’d donate all the proceeds to a favorite charity, but he and the better senses of humor among his unwitting sidewalk audiences reportedly got some final much-needed laughs from it.
It also occurs to us that with Corey’s passing we now inherit the title of “World’s Foremost Authority,” having previously been “World’s Second Foremost Authority,” and we will do our best to carry it with an honor worthy of the man.
— Bud Norman