“If we don’t take direction soon, we’ll end up where we are going” – Irwin Corey

A tribute to a professor of complexification by Alan Siegel

Irwin Corey performing in 1966. An admirer, the critic Kenneth Tynan, called him “Chaplin’s clown with a college education.” Credit ABC Photo Archives, via Getty Images

Irwin Corey performing in 1966. An admirer, the critic Kenneth Tynan, called him “Chaplin’s clown with a college education.” Credit ABC Photo Archives, via Getty Images

When I started championing the simplification of business and government communications 35 years ago I was asked to make a speech before an important trade association.

I wanted to attract attention to the subject of complexity with some humor to kick off the presentation. A dramatic and humorous example of complexity. Up popped the cunningly befuddled Professor Irwin Corey on the Ed Sullivan Show dressed in a black tail coat, and sneakers with his hair flying in all directions who described himself as the “world’s foremost authority “ as he spewed out clouds of inspired nonsense.

While I couldn’t arrange for him to introduce me for this speech I kept tabs on his appearances at comedy clubs and television shows. His portrayal of the professor as a tutor to Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy on a radio program was captivating. I used some of the incoherent nonsense he used in these comedy routines in articles and speeches about Plain English. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

“Protocol takes precedence over procedure”
“Sometimes, I forge what I’m talking about in the middle of a word”
“If we don’t take direction soon, we’ll end up where we are going”

No question was too simple that he couldn’t complicate it. When asked about an election-year outcome he said, “I’m sorry, the returns are fragmentary, but the indication is that there will a turnout that won’t come up to the expectations of those who, through their own analyses, have proved the percentages will only relate to the outcome.”

This delightful professor of some unspecified discipline who fomented clouds of inspired nonsense passed away at 102 in early February. Even as his health declined, according to the obituary in the NYT his spirit remained strong. In his own words,

“I feel more like I do now then when I first got there”