Friday, September 6, 2013

An Interview with the Professor Irwin Corey

Kliph Nesteroff: Damon Runyon once called you the funniest man in the world.

Professor Irwin Corey: That is true. Runyon wrote in his column that Irwin Corey was the funniest man in the world. Damon Runyon met me at the Blue Angel. He said he would "always go to a place when there is a giggler like Irwin Corey." He didn't like these crowded rooms. It was a very small place and it only held like a hundred people, but Damon Runyon would come if he knew I was on the show.

I also got some reviews from people like Ralph Gleason and Kenneth Tynan all saying that I was unique and unlike anything they had ever seen before. I, myself, was not conscious of being that great a personality. Kenneth Tynan and my family were very, very friendly. I bought a high chair for he and his wife when they had a new child.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a clipping from 1936 that says you were performing with the Lionel Stander Vaudeville Tour.

Professor Irwin Corey: Yeah, I did a tour with Lionel Stander. He fired me after three weeks to save fifty dollars.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Professor Irwin Corey: (laughs) He did a vaudeville act and we were hecklers. I don't remember exactly what we did, but he was on the bill with a couple of people. He said on New Year's Eve, "Don't even bother telling jokes. Tonight the audience are the funny ones."

Kliph Nesteroff: You were given a big break by Edgar Bergen. You were hired as a regular on his radio show.

Professor Irwin Corey: Yes, I was on the Edgar Bergen show. A guy from J. Walter Thompson recommended me.

Kliph Nesteroff: The advertising agency.

Professor Irwin Corey: Yeah, the advertising agency that produced The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you were dropped because Chase and Sanborn felt you were "not right for the show."

Professor Irwin Corey: Yeah, that's right (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Professor Irwin Corey: I don't know why they dropped me - because I was very, very funny on that show.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Edgar Bergen like to work with?

Professor Irwin Corey: Well, they were all easy to work with because I had no personal dialogue with them. I was just brought in as a stand alone cameo.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1947 it was announced you were getting a screen test...

Professor Irwin Corey: Well, no, it was 1943 that I had the screen test. It was me and Elizabeth Taylor. She was auditioning for National Velvet. I was being reviewed to do some comedy relief work in movies, but they didn't know what to do with me or how to use me. In fact, my first movie wasn't until much later with Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Jane Wyman and Leslie Nielsen. All the papers said I was the only funny thing in the show. That was How to Commit Marriage.

Kliph Nesteroff: In the early fifties you formed a production company with a pair of writers - Larry Gore and Arnold Stone - they were going to produce twenty-six half hour pictures with you as star.

Professor Irwin Corey: Yes, Larry Gore was a press agent. Nothing happened with it.

Kliph Nesteroff: 1948 - you were in Monte Proser's production of Heaven On Earth.

Professor Irwin Corey: Oh yeah, Heaven On Earth with Peter Lind Hayes. A goyish comedian. I never thought he was very funny. In fact, in the show he said that I stepped on his only laugh. Before we even got into rehearsals Peter Lind Hayes said, "Either he goes or I go!" I said, "I want to go. I've been trying to get on this [other] show." It was a terrible play. One of the reviewers said, "The only one that defeated the dullness of the material was Irwin Corey who turned the redundancies of oratory into something hilarious." I mean, Peter Lind Hayes did something that was unforgivable, to criticize another actor in the play.

Kliph Nesteroff: Also in the cast was a comedic actor named Davey Burns.

Professor Irwin Corey: I was a lawyer and he played the house commissioner. Davey Burns was a poor man's W.C. Fields. He was very, very funny. Davey Burns was also in that film that was such a flop, How to Commit Marriage

Kliph Nesteroff: In those days you were doing a bit in your nightclub act called the Islands of Marijuana. What was the reaction of the crowd to marijuana related material in the late nineteen forties?

Professor Irwin Corey: Yeah, it was something about marijuana, but I don't remember the bit. It was so long ago. I've been in the business now for eighty years!

Kliph Nesteroff: I know!

Professor Irwin Corey: (groans) What a long time that is.

I did a show with Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Dick Cavett, Dick Gregory and Bill Dana. I told this joke. "A bum walks up to a very wealthy woman and says, 'Madam, I'm broke. Can I borrow a buck?' Madam looks at the bum and says, ' Neither a borrower nor a lender be! - Shakespere.' The bum replies, 'Fuck you!' - Tennesee Williams.'"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) 

Professor Irwin Corey: We did a four-day gig in Pennsylvania. Bill Dana became a very good friend of mine. Mort Sahl used some of my material. I always said, "The future lies ahead!" And then he put out a record called The Future Lies Ahead - and that had been my line. In fact, I was the one that coined the expression, "You can get more with a kind word... and a gun, than with just a kind word." Many people thought that Al Capone had said that. Al Capone couldn't even write his first name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get along with Mort Sahl?

Professor Irwin Corey: Mort Sahl was very envious of me.

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1949 you played the Copacabana.

Professor Irwin Corey: Yes, I played it in 1947, 1948 and 1949. Once with Kitty Kallen, once with a very good singer... forget her name... and once with Phil Regan, the singing cop.

Kliph Nesteroff: It seems like an unlikely room for you.

Professor Irwin Corey: Well, I was a big shot then. I was really, really riding high.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who was in charge? Monte Proser? Jules Podell?

Professor Irwin Corey: Monte Proser was the frontman for Podell. Podell was the Jewish mafia. I remember when Podell... a couple came in and said, "We have a reservation for two." They said, "No. There's no reservation for you." The guy was Black. Lena Horne was [booked] there. Lena said, "If you don't allow him to come in, I'm not going to perform." Lena was a very interesting woman.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the progessive comedians of that era. Did you know Henry Morgan?

Professor Irwin Corey: Oh, yes, I worked on a show with him! Morgan was very funny. And Lord Buckley. He was broke at the time and I gave him five hundred dollars. That was in Florida at Murray Franklin's place. I followed Don Rickles in. Don Rickles has an act that is very funny - until the end when apologizes to the people for putting them down - which ruins his act!

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Don's act like back then?

Professor Irwin Corey: It was exactly the same. Same thing with me. My act all started out as an ad-lib, but after doing it so many times it became a routine. A guy said to me, "If it's funny once, it's funny twice." If you go to see Rembrant, you'll go to see it many times - and it's the same fucking picture. It doesn't change. If something is good at the beginning, it gets better at the end. If it's no good in the beginning, it'll be worse in the end.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's go through a list of other comedians and get your thoughts. Jackie Miles.

Professor Irwin Corey: Oh, I liked Jackie Miles. He used to drink his meals. Miles and Kent, that's what they were. Lenny Kent used to always tell my wife she had a very good trampoline act (laughs). Lenny Kent became a greeter at Caesar's Palace. He was nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: Lenny Bruce.

Professor Irwin Corey: Lenny Bruce was a very good friend of mine. In fact, I recommended Lenny Bruce for a job in London at the Establishment. I had been there and Kenneth Tynan and an American writer from Variety both saw the same show. The American said, "Unless he changes his material, he won't last this contract. Never in history have I seen an American comedian who was such a resounding failure!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Professor Irwin Corey: At the end of Ken Tynan's review he said, "I beg you to be there." And I was held over seven weeks. It was Peter Cook's place. I got Lenny Bruce the job. I recommended him because Ken Tynan saw me at the Mocambo in New York and asked me if I would like to go to London. I said, "Yes, but I can't go this year because I'm all booked up."

So I recommended Lenny Bruce and he thanked me for it. When Lenny Bruce got there he recommended me for the job! I still have the letter he wrote on the back of an envelope. I also got him the job at the Cafe Au Go Go and I took his place when he was busted. The police allowed me to go on in his place. They said my material was suitable for human beings. The Cafe Au Go Go on Bleecker Street.

Kliph Nesteroff: When did you meet Lenny Bruce?

Professor Irwin Corey: 1955 we became very good friends. In fact, I invited him to come to my daughter's wedding. His mother, Sally Marr, said, "Lenny just had an operation and can't make it."

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Shecky Greene?

Professor Irwin Corey: Shecky Greene recommended me for a place in Vegas. The Riviera. Yeah, Shecky Greene is very funny. There are very few funny people that I like, but one of them was Shecky Greene along with Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Jonathan Winters.

Kliph Nesteroff: Dick Gregory...

Professor Irwin Corey: Yes, Dick Gregory. I got him a job because I refused to work on a Sunday at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Dick Gregory was working at a car wash, but he did comedy at the Black clubs in Chicago.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where had you seen him perform that you suggested...

Professor Irwin Corey: No, no, I didn't recommend him, what happened was I wouldn't work on the Sunday so they ended up hiring him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, I see.

Professor Irwin Corey: If I worked that night he never would have had a job. His first ever job in white show business.

Kliph Nesteroff: Richard Pryor...

Professor Irwin Corey: My daughter discovered Richard Pryor at a place called The Scene at 48th Street and 8th Avenue. My daughter also recommended Barbra Streisand to my agent and he refused both of them. She was an actress when she worked with me in a play called God's Favorite.

Kliph Nesteroff: In some of the reviews I've looked at you were described as "Zero Mostel-esque."

Professor Irwin Corey: Zero Mostel was a friend of mine. Zero met my wife in the street and he said, "I'm funnier than your husband!" My wife said, "No, you're not." He said, "Well, I'm taller." (laughs) We did an act together to raise money for the magazine New Masses.

Kliph Nesteroff: November 1950 you played the Hotel Thunderbird in Las Vegas.

Professor Irwin Corey: In Vegas I was talking about the government when this heckler yelled, "Do you love your country!" I said to the heckler, "What tree are you talking about?" He said, "Your country!" I said, "What tree?" He said, "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!"

Kliph Nesteroff: Did anybody every go after you because of your progressive politics?

Professor Irwin Corey: I was never aware that I was a political commentator. It just happens. You just do it. You breathe, but you're not conscious of breathing. When I did my act I wasn't conscious that it was political.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's interesting that someone like Jackie Gleason used you so much. He grew to be very right-wing. He became friendly with Richard Nixon, but he loved you.

Professor Irwin Corey: I did five episodes for Jackie Gleason that had this sketch spoof of It Pays to Be Ignorant. On the show was Crazy Guggenheim - Frank Fontaine, and that woman that had her head cut off. What was her name? Jayne Mansfield? And me. Jayne Mansfield, Jackie Gleason and Crazy Guggenheim in a sketch called It Pays to Be Ignorant. I did a lot of things with Jackie Gleason. I did a show with him and Frankie Carle. I worked with Bobby Short. You ever hear of him?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Professor Irwin Corey: Bobby Short was at the Carlyle Hotel for about forty years.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a guy named Jackie Kannon?

Professor Irwin Corey: Yes, Jackie Kannon was very funny. And George Carlin. I also helped get Carlin a job early on. I was working at the Playboy Club. He asked if he could try out his material on my audience and I said, "Sure!" I introduced him and gave him a good introduction. I said, "You in the audience are going to be guinea pigs to see if this material will be appropriate for The Ed Sullivan Show." He was on for an hour. He thanked me very much and he did the television show.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Latin Quarter in Boston in 1953...

Professor Irwin Corey: Yes, I did three Latin Quarter [gigs]. Once with Billy Hendricks and Annie Ross. What was their thing called?

Kliph Nesteroff: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Professor Irwin Corey: Yeah, I did a couple shows with them at the Storyville club too.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you did a gig at the Latin Quarter with Sugar Ray Robinson.

Professor Irwin Corey: That's right (laughs). He did a couple of tap dance things and he sang a couple songs (laughs). But he was not born an actor!

Kliph Nesteroff: Your homebase was really New York and particularly the East Village. There were so many legendary comedians to come out of the Village scene. Woody Allen...

Professor Irwin Corey: Woody Allen used some of my material. He was no good at the... he died at the Hungry i and at the Blue Angel. He's not as great a performer as he thinks he is.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you confront people that took your material?

Professor Irwin Corey: My material? Anybody who wants my material... I had a line like, "She went to bed eating popcorn and woke up with a colonel." A couple of comedians used that line and said to me, "You've got so much material, what difference does it make if I use one of your lines?"

Kliph Nesteroff: Will Jordan claims that Lenny Bruce stole material...

Professor Irwin Corey: He was a great imitator, Will Jordan. He did a great Ed Sullivan. Ed Sullivan was an anti-Semite and a very dull person in reality. No fucking talent at all! If you didn't do his show he would bad mouth you in his column. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Milton Berle...

Professor Irwin Corey: I knew Milton. He was a member of the Friars Club and I became an honorary member of the Friars back in 1982. But Milton Berle... I don't know how people thought he was so funny. Compared to others he was, so far as I was concerned, a lightweight.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jackie Mason...

Professor Irwin Corey: Jackie Mason was very good in the beginning, but when he became rich he became a Republican. I liked him in nightclubs. I would go and see him. I thought he was very funny at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of comedians don't like him as a person...

Professor Irwin Corey: Well, I was friendly with him, but I didn't really know him as a person.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jerry Lewis...

Professor Irwin Corey: Jerry Lewis had a heart attack. Someone told him they found a cure for muscular dystrophy! He's always looking for a disease that has no cure.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Professor Irwin Corey: If it wasn't for Dean Martin, no one would have ever heard of Jerry Lewis. Dean Martin was the stem.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Eddie Cantor...

Professor Irwin Corey: Yeah, Eddie Cantor was a very good friend. In fact, I was flown out to Los Angeles to do a benefit for the B'nai Brith. They had a big dinner there and Eddie said to me, "I'm not going to put you on cause these beefeaters won't understand a word. They're only here for the food."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Professor Irwin Corey: I thanked him very much for my not having to go on!

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Fred Allen...

Professor Irwin Corey: Fred Allen and I did a show at Brandeis University when it opened. On the show was S.J. Perelman, Fred Allen, Jimmy Savo... you ever hear of him?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, Jimmy Savo was a pantomimist of sorts... kind of like Gene Sheldon...  he had his leg amputated...

Professor Irwin Corey: Jimmy Savo was a silent comedian. Remember Stay Away From My Door? He made that song famous. Gene Sheldon loved me. Came to see me every time I did a show. He was a banjo player. He was very funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Phil Silvers...

Professor Irwin Corey: Phil Silvers I worked with on the Bilko show. You ever see that one?

Kliph Nesteroff: I have, yes.

Professor Irwin Corey: You'll Never Get Rich. It was an episode written by Neil Simon. I think he got nominated for an Emmy. Phil Silvers was easy to work with. When we were reading the script he said to me, "You were in show business once, right?" I said, "Twice."