“However.” Sometimes he spoke the word as an exclamation, sometimes as a half-question. He never connected it to anything that preceded it. It was not a reply, or it was a reply to everything the world had offered him up to the moment he encountered the audience on the other side of the footlights.
“Professor” Irwin Corey would shamble up to the microphone in an over sized suit, his shoelace necktie askew, his hair combed by a blender, and his first word to the audience in his role as “The World’s Foremost Authority” (topic always TBA) was always: “However.” What followed was always a stream of words that bore a relationship to English sentences that could be diagrammed, but the relationship appeared to be closer to a divorce than a marriage.
However one remembers “Professor” Irwin Corey, who died on Monday at the age of 102 and a half, one should remember that he and his act were embraced by activists, by anti-authoritarians, and by those who always take sides against pompous twits and those blowhards who love bureaucracy.
In 1973, when Thomas Pynchon, the novelist whose most recent published photograph was decades old, was awarded the National Book Award for his epic Gravity’s Rainbow, his publisher sent a speaker to accept the prestigious award: Irwin Corey. Somehow, few in the audience seemed to recognize the stand-up comedian, who was a familiar face from his many television appearances, or they thought that they were about to learn that Pynchon had been hiding in plain view for many years as a nightclub comedian.
A clip from a documentary about the moment:
In the early 1980s, my high school theater club traveled to Stratford, Connecticut, home of the (now-closed) American Shakespeare Theatre, where we viewed a production of Hamlet directed by Zoe Caldwell that starred a not-yet known Chris Noth as the Prince and Irwin Corey as one of the gravediggers. The Professor stuck to the script but his voice conveyed depths of ambiguity.
He appeared on Late Night with David Letterman at around that time:
As he approached his century mark, Professor Corey continued to work, but not always on stage. Several years ago, a reporter discovered him panhandling in lower Manhattan, walking from car to car as the drivers sat in traffic. He sold newspapers that local bodega owners gave him. The reporter thought that perhaps he had found a sad story of an elderly entertainer desperate for pocket change, until he heard Irwin Corey speak to the drivers: he was raising money for indigent children and he had sent tens of thousands of dollars to charities over the years. He did not need anything for himself.
He and his wife, Fran, were married for seventy years, until her death in 2011. In 2013, a documentary about their life in comedy, Irwin and Fran, was released to acclaim:
And he was an activist till the end of his life. Comedian and activist Randy Credico posted a photo in April 2016 of Irwin Corey supporting a candidate for President:
— Randy Credico (@Credico2016) April 7, 2016
Professor Irwin Corey: we still need you.
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