Irwin Corey, who Lenny Bruce once called “one of the most brilliant comedians of all time,” has died at 102.
A classic “comedian’s comedian,” Corey died on Monday at his home in Manhattan, NY his son Richard confirmed to NPR.
Billed as “the world’s foremost authority” and nicknamed “professor,” Corey was known for delivering quirky one-liners and slapstick routines as a wild-haired, faux professor dressed in a beat-up tuxedo and spaghetti tie.
Corey was a master of double-talk comedy and would make fun of academic pretenses by spouting strings of multisyllabic science-words in long nonsensical dialogues, often beginning with the word “however.”
“However, today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure,” began one of his jokes. “Marx, Groucho Marx, once said that religion is the opiate of the people. I say that when religion outlives its usefulness, then opium will be the opiate. Ah, that’s not a bad idea.”
Corey delivered the above joke at the National Book Awards ceremony in 1974, where he conspired with reclusive author Thomas Pynchon to accept the fiction award on his behalf. Since no one in the audience had ever seen Pynchon, they assumed Corey was the famed author. The day after the show, the Times reported that Corey’s “series of bad jokes and mangled syntax” left “some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed.”
Born in the Brooklyn, NY in 1914, Corey was placed in an orphanage by his mother, who was unable to care for him. He often joked that he decided to become a comedian after a casting director found his Hamlet rendition so hilarious he suggested, “You should be a comedian.” Corey took the advice.
He went on to star in seven Broadway shows, several films and frequently performed in clubs and on late night talk shows. He worked with stars like Jackie Gleason and Woody Allen, and was admired by the likes of Damon Runyon and Lenny Bruce
Corey was also known for his left-wing politics. “When I tried to join the Communist Party, they called me an anarchist,” he once joked, according to the Times. His views led him to be blacklisted in the 1950s, something Corey believed effected his career for the rest of his life.
He continued performing into his 90s and, as the Times reported in 2011, spent years panhandling on the streets of New York. Corey donated the money he collected to charity and viewed the activity as a sort of performance art. Asked why he panhandled, he reportedly answered, “Why? I want to help people out.”
Corey is survived by his son, two grandsons and two great-grandchildren. His wife Frances Berman died in 2011 and his daughter, Margaret, died in 1997.