Emo wins over audience
West End Times, October 20, 1993
Emo Philips peers out from behind the curtains and slowly takes to the stage. The tall, gangly man-child surveys his audience, unsure of what to make of them.
The audience at Punchline’s Comedy Club in Gastown is already laughing. They know what to make of the 37-year-old comedian from his numerous talk show appearances, HBO specials, and comedy albums. Emo Philips is no ordinary comic.
With his distinctive look and manner – his bowl-cut hairdo, sad, elongated face, arched eyebrows, wide eyes, pale skin and bodily contortions – Philips easily could have made it as a physical silent movie comedian like his idols Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
But to concentrate solely on his appearance and comedy persona is to miss the point. Philips’ material is damn funny. Put him in a suit and tie, give him the delivery of your standard standup, and he’d still succeed. You don’t stay in the business for 17 years, like he has, on the strength of a goofy look and strange delivery.
Philips’ jokes are largely one-liners, not unlike Steven Wright’s. But while Wright stands motionless and recites his work in a monotone, Emo prowls the stage, his limbs pointing in all directions – his knees up to his ears, arms stretched over his head, straight out behind him, or fidgeting with his hair. He speaks slowly, enunciating each word, and his pitch rises and falls like a diva warming up for her aria.
The difference in styles aside, the jokes are similar, relying on turns of phrases and literal takes. On the way to the gig, for example, he apparently had an asthmatic attack. “Three asthmatics jumped me. I know, I know… I should have heard them hiding.”
And when his girlfriend told him she was seeing another man, he suggested, “Well, try rubbing your eyes or something.”
See if this doesn’t sound like it’s from the Steven Wright library: “I lent a friend a couple of thousand dollars for plastic surgery. Now I don’t know what he looks like.”
Philips generally works clean. And while there are a few sick jokes, he, himself, is the butt of most of them.
The unathletic Chicago native, who weighs 140 pounds naked (“That is if you can go by the scale in the bus station”), was called Mr. Baseball in his youth. Not for any physical prowess, but “because of the stitches in my face.”
Just looking at him you might think he’s led a sheltered life. “But I’ve tried my hand at sex,” he says. “I held my own.”
While playing Manitoba (“an Indian word meaning ‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’”) in February, it was so cold, he said, “that I seriously considered contracting gonorrhea just for the burning sensation.”
To truly appreciate Emo Philips, as the crowd at Punchlines clearly did, one has to see him live. Television does not do him justice. He needs time to develop his rather annoying offbeat character.
But over the course of an hour, he grows on you.