The Comic Genius Of Emo Phillips
Written by J.T. Ryder
With a wide eyed, childlike stare, Emo Philips draws the audience down a winding garden path, the listener hanging on every word, softly spoken in an innocently wavering falsetto sing-song voice. Suddenly you find yourself in an Alice In wonderland world where nothing is as it truly seems. Emo’s mastery of misdirection is the epic cornerstone of his comedy and an ability that other comedians have tried to emulate, but have never really come close to recreating.
Emo entered the scene in Chicago during the 1980’s comedy boom and it wasn’t long before his talents were recognized, landing him a spot on Late Night with David Letterman in 1984. That same year, he released his first album (which has since been reissued) titled simply E=MO2, which went on to win the New Music Award for Best Comedy Album of the year. Subsequent HBO specials and television appearances followed as well as a very successful set of performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and a follow-up tour of the UK.
Englanders were very fond of Emo and he spent quite a bit of time there. During an interview with Emo, I asked him if there were any differences between American audiences and European audiences.
“By far the main difference is that someone in the American audience might have a gun.” He said, quickly adding, “That can’t help but rush your timing.”
On that same theme, I wondered if he had to change or adapt his act for an English audience and visa versa after coming back to America.
“I can think of but one joke that kills in one country but gets zero response in the other. ‘I went to a kabob shop and had doner, which my body rejected.’” Emo then trailed off with, “I’ll leave it to you to guess which country is which.” (writer’s note: I actually had to research this one, finding that a doner is a spiced Turkish kebab which is very popular in England.)
Emo’s genius has definitely been recognized by audiences (with über fans labeling themselves as Emopheliacs), by the industry (Jay Leno contends that Emo Philips is the best joke writer in America) and in the popular press (GQ Magazine commissioned a panel which judged three of Emo’s jokes to be included in the best seventy-five joke of all time). While other comedian’s routines are based on long, drawn out stories or a ‘set ‘em up, knock ‘em down’ kind of format, Emo’s jokes are so well crafted in there elegance and conciseness, many of the nuances are not realized until much later. I wondered if he started out writing a longer piece and then pared it down, until he was left with the essence of the joke or if they were written in almost the same way that they are presented.
“The length doesn’t change, but the words often do… sometimes merely through a slip of the tongue” Emo went on to explain that, “It is much like evolution, happening through random genetic mutations in that respect.”
And was he a disciplined writer or did he write when inspiration struck?
“Coming up with a funny joke is like falling in love: It can hit you any time, anywhere.” Emo went on to say that, “Having said that, the more you put yourself out there, the better your odds will be.”
One thing that is unique about Emo Philip’s appearance at Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub is that he tries out new material…material that no audience anywhere has ever heard. He takes to the stage armed with a handful of index cards and what follows is utterly mesmerizing.
“I’ve been returning to Wiley’s year after year for as long as I can remember; it is one of my very favorite comedy clubs. As a matter of fact, here I’ve a tradition of doing something that I do nowhere else.” Emo went on to explain, “After giving the best darned show that I possibly can, we bid adieu to those who must leave (in case they’ve work early the next morning, or if they’ve a babysitter they need to race home to catch their spouse with), and the lights go up. Then, after a ten-minute break, the lights go down again, and I retake the stage for a half hour or so of material so innovative, so dangerous, and/ or so non-thought out, that I am afraid to try it in my regular show. To my delight, the audience always seems to like this ‘Hey, I warned you’ set almost as much as what went on before.”