The Professor and Me

An unforgettable two-part experience with the legendary Professor Irwin Corey

In the mid-80s, I was landing only the occasional paid gig as a standup comedian in New York. My full-time survival job was at a talent agency that specialized in rock and roll oldies acts, but that also handled a little bit of everything else. It was sort of Broadway Danny Rose meets Dick Clark. I was in charge of the contract department, and was free to book a few shows here and there as well, which enabled me to earn commissions on top of my regular salary. A New England promoter whose name I don’t remember called one day, and wanted to know who we represent. I threw a few names at him, and we wound up making a deal for a double bill featuring two comedians who were both well-known but no longer big draws — Pat Paulsen and Professor Irwin Corey.

Two shows in one evening were scheduled at a theater in Pawtucket, Rhode Island near Providence. Paulsen was traveling on his own, and the Professor and I flew up together from New York. At that point in my life, I was prone to speaking provocatively to strangers, and generally acting up in ways that cracked up some of my friends, but annoyed others. I was not prepared for the role reversal that occurred at the airport. As we made our way through the terminal, Corey — who was about 70 then — showered just about all the young women in the vicinity with colorful compliments about their looks. To Corey, they were all irresistible, and he felt compelled to let them know. My initial embarrassment soon gave way to amusement, probably because the lasses were all charmed.

The promoter, Corey and I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant just prior to the early show. Somehow we got on to the topic of who was the more renowned of the two co-headliners, and the promoter made the mistake of suggesting it was Paulsen. Corey was aghast. He leapt from the booth where we had been quietly ensconced, and began wandering around the restaurant to ask startled patrons who didn’t seem to recognize him, if he’s more famous than Paulsen. The question was asked in such a way that only one answer would be considered the correct one. The promoter begged me to get him to stop. “I don’t think I can,” I told him.

One of the highlights of a typical Professor Irwin Corey performance was a segment reserved for audience members to ask questions. It consistently elicited hilarious responses from “the world’s foremost authority,” who seemed to possess uncanny improvisational skills. But backstage at the theater, I saw Corey casually walk up to whomever was hanging out, and hand them slips of paper. Those people all asked questions at the designated point in the show, and the Professor gave them perfect answers without hesitation.

So it turned out that Corey juiced up his act with plants. He was still one of the all-time greatest — and most original — comedians. Unfortunately, very few people witnessed him deliver the goods that night in Rhode Island. In fact, almost no tickets at all had been sold for the late show, so it was cancelled. As we left the theater much earlier than expected, the promoter offered to drive us to the airport even though he had reserved a couple of rooms for us at a nearby hotel. It seemed like a good idea, so off we went. We got there a few minutes after the last flight of the night had departed. Nice try, but it would be an overnight stay in Pawtucket as originally planned.

We hopped back in the promoter’s car, and as we headed to the hotel, Corey told him the two of us could share a single room. I hated the idea, because I’m a very light sleeper. But what could I say given that I was the one who had sold the guy who was paying for our accommodations a show that had totally tanked?

Not surprisingly, the Professor was a rather dominant roommate. We watched what he wanted to watch on TV at the volume he selected. It was loud, and as the hours ticked by, I began to wonder if Corey would ever turn it off. He asked me if I had brought any pot to smoke, and I told him I had not. I wished that I had. Eventually, I grew so frustrated that I decided to pay for my own room. But when I got to the front desk to make the transaction, I found out the hotel was completely sold out. Apparently, something in Pawtucket was a hotter attraction than a Pat Paulsen-Irwin Corey double bill.

Back in the room, I saw in an ashtray what was left of a joint that Corey had apparently smoked while I was receiving bad news in the lobby. I wondered why he had asked me to supply what he already possessed, but what really captured my attention was that the Professor had dozed off. I turned off the television, and climbed into my bed while the other occupant began to snore in his. The snoring escalated and never let up the whole night. I basically got no sleep at all. A wakeup call came at 8:00, at which time Corey sprang out of bed like a firefighter responding to an alarm.

Although our 9:00 flight was packed, not a sound could be heard as we waited to take off. I decided it was a good time to ask the Professor to perform at an upcoming fundraiser I was organizing in New York in support of Jello Biafra who was facing obscenity charges for including an image called “Penis Landscape” inside the record sleeve of an album released by the Dead Kennedys, his band at the time. Corey exploded. He began to rant about what a trivial matter it was compared to the Holocaust. He told me he would never perform at such an event, but he would attend. “Okay,” I said meekly.

Back in New York, I described to my friend Ramona how the Professor had reacted when I made my humble request on the plane. She and I hatched a plan that I thought just might work. The idea was for Ramona to join Corey, me and a few others at dinner just before the fundraiser. She would generously display her ample cleavage while telling the Professor how much she loves his comedy, and that her dream is to see him perform in person.

When we arrived at Tramps, a fabulous joint in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan that has since gone out of business, I still didn’t know if Corey would take the stage. But I saw that Ramona was doing a magnificent job of entertaining him. When the moment seemed right, I asked the Professor if he’d be kind enough to treat us to a few minutes of his surefire shtick. He bolted to the stage with even more verve than he had demonstrated upon rising in Pawtucket. For 30 minutes, he had the audience in stitches. It was the best I had ever seen him.

On February 6, 2017, at the age of 102, America’s oldest-living famous comedian passed away. R.I.P., Professor.