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The Flip Sides of Emo Philips

The essence of Emo.

That’s what I was after. No one knows what Emo Philips is really like (well, except maybe his mom) because the gangly, slow-talking, 31-year-old comedian apparently refuses to break character in public. Even when he’s off stage, he’s “on.” He doesn’t know when to quit. In interviews, even in casual conversation, the next joke or bit is just seconds away.

Mostly, he uses stuff right from his act (and a strong act it is, strong enough that it has landed him a record deal, a fistful of “Late Night with David Letterman” gigs and two cable TV specials). Sometimes he’ll use lines from his press biography (which he wrote himself). Sometimes his gags and wordplay (this man never met a pun he didn’t like) will actually be spontaneous. But Emo rarely strays too far from his basic stand-up persona, lest he actually say something self-revealing.

I wanted to cut through all that.

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As well-versed in all things Emo as I could make myself, I met him for dinner. My dinner with Emo.

As we sat down at a classy Italian restaurant, not far from the Improv in Irvine where he was appearing, the prospects didn’t appear all that promising. Apparently unfazed by Emo’s appearance (pageboy hairdo, oddly striped pants and several layers of tattered garments barely covering a pajama top) the waiter politely greeted us and asked for our drink order. Emo ordered a glass of water with no ice; I asked for water with ice, which prompted Emo to lean forward and say:

“Oooo, big spender.”

Worse, after the waiter arrived, Emo raised his glass and said with a smile: “As the skiers say in Israel--Slalom.”

Now I’m thinking: This is going to be a long night. I’m pursuing a mission impossible. That line was an Emo hat trick: It’s in his act and in his bio, and he’s used it in countless interviews. I had decided beforehand, though, that there was no way to deter him from tossing out his free-standing jokes.

What was important was staying with questions, resolutely, beyond his initial response, beyond the inevitable gag/pat answer. And sure enough, every topic ended up verbal volleyball: Every time I’d ask him a straight question, he’d act as if I was just lobbing him a straight line, so I’d ask him again.

We kept it up for two hours. And what happened? Well, Emo probably won on points, but I walked away with a decent consolation prize: clues about what kind of traits--indeed, what kind of person--lurks behind that goofy facade.

It turned out to be a mixture of the pretty much expected (he seems to be a somewhat insecure man, very concerned with cultivating a specific image) and the unexpected (he’s worried about ruffling certain show business feathers, and even more worried about money--especially surprising given that he’s probably pulling about $10,000 a week these days).

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The first chink in his batty armor developed during a series of questions about benefit shows. The night before our dinner, Emo had performed along with other comics and actors in a benefit for the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. I mostly wanted to broach the subject because, unlike many of his peers, he almost never participates in benefits.

“True, I don’t do a lot of benefits,” he replied. “But I’m a very charitable sort. During the last couple of years, I’ve donated quite a bit of money to deprived inner-city youths.

“Not voluntarily.”

Rimshot. But I stuck with it . I rephrased the question; he did another joke. One more time:

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Why don’t you do many benefits?

“Well, I think the spirit of comedy is antithetical to benefits,” he said, starting to fidget with his menu. “It’s like a leak in the boat--suddenly, there’s something you can’t joke about, and that’s whatever the benefit is (for). And I think that’s antithetical to the spirit of comedy, which is that you should be able to offend everyone.”

Atta boy, Emo! Not so much for promoting the right “to offend everyone” (his act is squeaky-clean and free of slurs anyway) but for cutting the--uh, corn --and stating a real-life opinion. Much less one that doesn’t exactly align him philosophically with the organizers of, say, Comic Relief. Maybe there is an actual human being here, after all.

On the other hand, he wasn’t exactly Dorothy pulling the curtain wide open, completely exposing the little man at the controls. Far from it. He quickly retreated to the safety of material and rote responses--and offbeat behavior, such as gargling with the water, ostensibly to help sooth his hoarse throat.

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In other words, Emo went right back to “doing” Emo. Not surprising. But I took a new tack. Confront him directly. I noted that in reading other interviews with him, and in talking to people about him, his refusal to break character had emerged as a running theme.

“Running theme?” he fired back instantly. “That sounds like the name you give an Indian child who becomes an English major.”

I pressed on. It also sounds like a perfect example of what I’m talking about, I said. If you’re always answering questions by rote with bits from your act, or other things you’ve said before, it might be quotable-- but is it really a true response?

“Well, if someone asks a question, I usually give a certain answer to it--just because that is the one true answer.”

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Really? Well, what if I ask you about the history of your dotty sartorial style (which I once did). And you reply that years ago, whenever you had money, you’d “be at the clothing store buying up Nehru jackets like they were going out of style” (which you did). Is that the truth, or just an excerpt from your act?

“It’s both. I mean, it is true, and it is good enough to be in my act.”

Hmmm.

While not crazy about my observation that he’s a tireless self-promoter, he quickly confirmed that he loves doing interviews, with just about any publication that asks.

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“Yeah, it’s fun for me. I enjoy it,” he allowed. “You get to talk about yourself, and people read about you, and it makes you more famous. What’s not to like?”

Especially when the resulting stories tend to present Emo in a favorable light, which is hardly serendipitous. “Usually the people who interview me are fans of mine. . . . My publicist tries to weed out the non-fans.”

If that sounds like efforts at media management that would do Marlin Fitzwater proud, you ain’t heard nothing yet. Interview stories are one thing--controlled circumstances, easier to influence by a crafty publicist or a media-savvy interviewee. But reviews would seem to be a different, uh, story--typified by more variables and, therefore, less control. Yet, with rare exception, Emo gets good reviews.

“I just take great pains to throw in a couple of Nietzsche references if I know a critic is in the house,” he said. “It brings the show to a screeching halt, but it’s a good investment.” His crooked smile suggested that he was only half-kidding.

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”. . . Then I get on with the toilet jokes and make everyone laugh again.”

A more intriguing--and revealing--stab at media control surfaced after we’d discussed the film “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” a remake of the Jules Verne classic being directed by Rusty Lemorande (who wrote and produced “Electric Dreams”) and featuring one Emo Philips.

Hollywood scuttlebutt has the picture beset by problems, gossip that has gained credibility as the flick--originally scheduled for a Christmas release--now has no release date at all. Even Emo, after cracking an obligatory joke (“It’ll be released when the government meets our demands”) acknowledged that the movie is riddled with troubles, which could in turn spell trouble for its stars.

“It’s an exciting business, isn’t it?” he said. “One day, you’re funny, you’re up, you’re a celebrity--and the next day you’re on the ‘Wil Shriner’ show.”

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Pause. “That’s not fair. I think Wil’s a humorous guy, a very quick wit.”

Then, several minutes later, when we were on a different topic, Emo interrupted himself to say: “I think Wil Shriner’s a funny guy; I like his show. Please don’t make it look like I don’t like him, OK? Unless you also say I think he’s a funny guy.”

He’s worried about ruffling certain show business feathers.

Geez, Emo. You worried Wil won’t invite you to his next birthday party, or what? Well, it turns out Wil had booked Emo onto his show. “I would be on midget sumo wrestling if they asked me,” he admitted. That doesn’t make you sound particularly discriminating, Emo ol’ boy. Is the idea that anything that gains you more exposure--that somehow advances your career--is inherently worth doing?

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“The money’s the thing,” he stated, adding that for guesting on Shriner’s program “they give you 500 bucks. Five hundred bucks for an afternoon’s work--who else makes that?”

... and even more worried about money.

This, from a guy whose club work alone must put his income in the middle six figures. Given that kind of dough, placed alongside the travel grind (he says he’s on the road about 46 weeks a year) and an ongoing battle with a hoarse voice, does he really need to say yes to everything that comes along?

It doesn’t quite add up. Just like it doesn’t completely make sense that he fretted over the unkind comment about Shriner’s show, yet later had no qualms about making an unflattering reference to a better-known figure.

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It was while discussing Judy Tenuta, who like Emo is an ingenious, off-center comic from Chicago. At one point, they were romantically involved (which must have made for some truly curious dates), and they recently were co-hosts for “Friday Night Videos.”

“She’s a lot of fun,” Emo said. “And I think she’s the funniest comedienne in the country, except for maybe Richard Simmons.”

What did make complete sense was his answer when asked which comics he particularly admired. A big favorite was the late Andy Kaufman, an often-bizarre performer whose career was built around blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

“I was also a big fan of Dick Shawn,” he said. “I saw his one-man show and thought it was wonderful.”

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Emo also said what he really liked was that Shawn was on stage telling a joke when he died: “It made sense that he would die at that point (in the performance). It’s not like it was out of context.”

He gargled the water one more time, pondered for a moment, then whispered, “That’s how I would like to go. During a joke.”


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