Direct from Oz Via the Twilight Zone Comes Emo Philips, Taking Comedy Beyond Strangeness
Persevering after a quick giggle, Dr. Ruth inquired about Emo's frequent appearances on Late Night With David Letterman. "Girls throw their panties on the stage, but," Emo sighed, "rarely if ever do they fit."
Failing to get a straight answer about Letterman, Dr. Ruth said cheerfully, "I'll come back." Gushed Emo, "You always do. You're a hot momma. You make me wish I never had the accident through the turnstile."
The segment, a gem for connoisseurs of the ridiculous, never aired and never will. Dr. Ruth and Emo "didn't connect," as her staff admits. Thanking her guest, the good doctor confessed, "If I didn't understand Emo, maybe it will be easier if I listen to the record."
Ah, yes, the record. Most rising comics don't get a record deal until, like Billy Crystal, Joe Piscopo or Eddie Murphy, they break through with a hit TV series or a movie. But Epic, the label of Michael Jackson and Carly Simon, inked Emo, 29, on the strength of his nightclub act alone.
His first album, E=MO², recorded live in New York, captures his bizarre and original style remarkably well, though you have to see him perform to appreciate how unusual he is. As soon as he clambers onstage, looking as astonished as Dorothy waking up in Oz and as warped as one of the hillbillies in Deliverance, audiences start laughing hysterically. Recently Steve Mittleman, one of the best comedians on the club circuit, found himself having to follow Emo on a bill at Caroline's, a New York comedy night spot. Mittleman humbly requested a 20-minute break to let the crowd calm down for his more low-key set. "It's like George Wallace trying to follow Timothy Leary," Mittleman said.
Emo's character has several sides. One is the hapless innocent who, when his girlfriend tells him she is seeing another man, says, " 'Well, try rubbing your eyes or something.' The next day I caught her in bed with this other guy. I was crushed. I said, 'Get off me, you two.' " He's also the wayward Christian who goes to confession and says, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; I'm just in here to develop film." Now and then Emo takes an unexpected political turn. When the doctor tells him his grandmother is on a life-support system—her brain is dead but her heart is still beating, he responds, "Oh, my gosh, we've never had a Democrat in the family."
Springing Emo on an unsuspecting world can cause trouble. Last summer he taped some radio spots for Dove-Bar ice cream. The spots didn't identify him—he just began speaking in his goofy, childlike voice. When the ads debuted on KABC-AM in Los Angeles, a number of listeners thought he was making fun of retarded children and called to object. Emo was put on the air to explain that he meant no offense.
Ask Emo if he had an unhappy childhood and he will say, "I had a rash once, if that's what you mean." He was born in Chicago. "When I was 10, my parents moved to Downer's Grove, Ill.," he says on his album. "When I was 12, I found them."
Actually he moved to Downer's Grove—a Chicago suburb—when he was still a toddler. His father, Walter, who died in 1978, worked in the dead letter office of the post office and had an excitable disposition, Emo says, "like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges." Emo takes after his mother, Anne, a sweet and mirthful woman whom Emo describes as "a Stan Laurel type, but chubby, like the Quaker Oats guy." Walter and Anne named their firstborn after a friend. "It's a Finnish name," Emo explains. "If you went into a bar in Helsinki and shouted, 'Emo!' I don't think everybody would turn around, but a few would."
As a child Emo was frail and suffered from asthma. (Years later this would lead to his first joke: "I had an asthmatic attack on the way over here. Three asthmatics jumped me. I know, I know, I should have heard them hiding.") Between his wheeze and his name he was "constantly teased. But I liked it," he insists, "it taught me to take a punch."
After dropping out of a branch campus of the University of Illinois, Emo worked as a Fuller Brush man: "I thought it would be a nice way to meet women." He took to the stage in non-paying comedy showcases to try out the jokes he had been scribbling furiously at night. That was nine years ago, and he has taken only one week off since from his usual nine-shows-a-week routine.
Hotel rooms are Emo's home—he has no apartment. To pass the time he reads voraciously, but only "dead authors" who have survived the ages. Nietzsche is a favorite, as are Rabelais, Chaucer and Cervantes. His 20th-century heroes tend to be film comics—Chaplin, Keaton. "I like happy stuff," Emo says. "I like jazz up until the '40s, before they started getting stoned and hanging out in gloomy places." As for drugs, he says he has never tried them. Why? "I don't want to do anything that'll make my hair fall out."
Instead Emo likes to escape by walking for hours, jotting down ideas on "scraps of paper or gum wrappers." He was "raised to believe every word of the Bible, and it's hard for me to get around that. God, to me, is like when you're packing to move and there are boxes all over and the baby is in one of the boxes. You have to find the baby. The world is all topsy-turvy, but you know God is there someplace."
Until he finds the baby, Emo is content to keep making people laugh. In November he'll have a half-hour Cinemax special. "I don't try to get heavy-handed," he says. "I just tell people, you know, 'Wake up and smell the coffin.' "