By his own count, it’s been almost 12 years since veteran comedian Emo Philips has performed in Salt Lake City.
“Let me check the restraining order again to be sure,” he explains in his singsong voice, reminiscent of Peter Brady at the onset of puberty. “Last time they had me put on an electronic necklace to keep track of my movements.”
The Chicago-born comic has been on something of a self-imposed hiatus for the past decade. Once referred to as “the best joke writer in America” by Jay Leno, the 46-year-old made his mark on the comedy circuit in the 1980s. Best known for his surreal, often self-deprecating one-liners (and his anachronistic Medieval-era pageboy hairstyle), Philips was the thinking man’s stand-up comic. Outrageous, but not profane. But, like hair metal and acid-wash jeans, Philips all but disappeared. He says it was part of a master plan.
“That was my strategy, going on hiatus,” he intones. “I decided to spend a lot of time in England. Convenient, as they speak the same language over there. And the mist was good for my skin. Really good. You know, I’m often mistaken now for Gwyneth Paltrow.”
Philips didn’t completely abandon stand-up; he just slowed his pace. The time in England was for more than skin aesthetics. It was a new place to work on his act. “I was honing, I’m very honed now. My act is very tight now; I may be at the peak of my technical skill. People seem to appreciate my multitasking on stage. I’ve got to keep things fresh for the young people. Otherwise, I’d become a PBS comedian working the annual telethons—and nobody wants that.”
Being in the profession for 27 years, he explains, is a testament to his love of stand-up. But stepping away from the comedy spotlight has made his brand of comedy stronger “Oh boy, I’ve done about 5,000 shows. It’s like running from a tiger, it might seem the same after a while, but it never gets boring. Besides, I’m far too old to learn a new skill now. If I weren’t doing comedy I’d be walking around the country like Forrest Gump, growing my beard, not changing my socks for the next five years. So I’ve got to be careful.”
Part of keeping things fresh was cutting off his trademark bob hairstyle. Was it a change for the new millennium? A shift towards a more mature, less elfin image? “OK, I had head lice,” he says. “And they really don’t respond to the medication or chanting anymore. It’s not about the hair anyway. It’s always been about getting on stage and making people happy. If you can do that, you’re already doing better than Terry Bradshaw!”
One thing Philips won’t do to reinvent himself is to succumb to using outright profanity in his act. His highly linguistic style doesn’t rely on the F-word for shock value. Philips’ penchant is for the cerebral but absurd. “A comic who uses the F-word is like a boxer who uses a horseshoe in his glove. It might seem effective and you can get far, but you’ll never make the big time. I prefer the super-intelligent act, no cussing kind of show. You could bring your grandma to see me, but do so knowing she might want to have sex with me after the show.”
For those wanting to really understand the Emo style of humor, Philips suggests his website, EmoPhilips.com. “It has an ‘Emo-Logic’ generator with my classic lines. Sometimes you can use it for an hour and get a different one each time, other times it might repeat a joke four times in a row. A lot like seeing me live! With the exception of my impersonation of a French-existentialist seagull.”
“Like Margaret Cho, I once had a large gay following,” Philips deadpans, “but I ducked into an alleyway and lost him.”
Despite his loyal legion of “Emo-philiacs,” he clearly understands the need to connect with today’s younger audiences, the ones more likely to identify “Emo” as a genre of punk rock, not a comedian. They’re his future as long as he plans to stay in the comedy game. “Those who come out to the show will see a great act, without seeing what previous audiences have had to suffer through; they’ll profit from the misery of past expectations. And if you still find yourself suffering through my show, remember it’s for the sake of the children who won’t have to suffer through an evening of Emo in the future.”
Philips looks forward to his upcoming visit to Utah. “I might consider living there if you can get the petition against me rescinded. I love your state. Your basketball team’s even called the Utah Jazz. Wow, you really have a great sense of irony out there in Salt Lake City.”