ANYONE at this year's Bridgetown Comedy Fest who didn't fall hard for comedy legend Emo Philips wasn't standing in the first place. He killed at the Prompter show, where comedians delivered an unprepared TED Talks-style lecture with only a broken teleprompter to guide them. Onstage, Philips exhibited improv skills as sharp as his razor wit, rolling with the teleprompter's cruel prompts and completely commanding the audience despite his confused child-like demeanor and pageboy haircut. After his Set List show at Bridgetown, Mercury Arts Editor Alison Hallett described his skills this way: "His brain is a genius brain. His jokes were genius jokes." Agreed.
I wish someone had clued me in to Emo's comedy years ago, with its twisting, looping wordplay and turn-on-a-dime garden-path jokes. Back in the '80s I could've caught his sets on the late-night talk show circuit, and reveled in the hilarity of his debut comedy album, E=MO2, which is a word nerd's delight. But maybe Portland's experiencing a new renaissance of Emotainment, right here and now. A mere three months after destroying at Bridgetown he's back to do a solo stand-up set at the Bossanova, where we'll get unadulterated Philips doing what he does best: telling unexpected, off-kilter jokes that are whack-a-doodle funny and packed with sardonic wit and cutting twists.
Philips took the time to answer some questions and talk about the haircut that protects the source of all his funny.
MERCURY: Why didn't you do any solo stand-up sets at Bridgetown?
EMO PHILIPS: It was all part of my plot to finagle a second trip to your enchanting city. Success!
What's your approach to joke writing?
Jokes pretty much come to me all at once, but I suppose that, technically, the punchline comes a fraction of a second after the setup, in a big bang sort of way.
Are you one of those "lock yourself in a room" types who force themselves to write?
I tried "locking myself in a room" to write, but I just wound up with a bunch of doorknob gags. For me, the best writing strategy is to simply go "hot turkey" and keep my antennae up 24-7.
You have such distinctive enunciation. Can you talk about how you came to that style of delivery?
I simply came of age in a pre-VCR (let alone DVR) era, when, if a TV actor didn't enunciate, the viewers would have to wait until the summer to have another go at catching what he said.
What were you like as a kid?
I was an underweight asthmatic bookworm in a sedate suburb of Chicago. But since it was the '60s, I was Huck Finn compared to any American child today.
What have you been reading lately?
Last week, two marvelous writers from Canada stayed at the house: Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink. So, to take full advantage of the opportunity to discuss their work with them for several days, in the month leading up I devoured as many of his novels, and her poems, as I could. It's a true treat to host writers in your home, especially since I'm a big fan of the classics and that would ordinarily necessitate grave robbery.
Who got you interested in doing comedy?
My mom made me want to be a stand-up, because she laughed hysterically at everything that I said. Later, I realized that she laughed hysterically at everything that everybody said, but by then it was too late: I had already been on Letterman.
How would you describe your fans?
My fans are the one percent. Not the wealthy one percent. The one percent of every conceivable demographic. I have one percent of Burmese-American truck drivers, for example. I am devilishly difficult to market.
Any plans for a new comedy album? Or any podcast appearances in your future?
I am feverishly working on a new comedy album. Unless, of course, I wind up giving it all away for free during an hour-long podcast. Goodness but it's hard fighting that impulse.
Can you tell me about your trademark haircut?
Throughout my career, I've always tried to have the hairstyle best suited for my face. In the late '90s, I moved to an area of LA without any parks nearby, so I stopped running thrice weekly and put on 60 pounds (I got all the way up to 200!). I cut my hair really short, because it suited my wider face better. But a few years ago, I started hiking in the mountains twice weekly and lost 40 of those pounds, so I went back to the original cut. (It's a misconception that we comedians aren't vain; we like looking our best the same as everyone else.)
The old chestnut: cats or dogs?
I'm a proud cat owner (my gosh, I've just realized how horrible "owner" sounds). Be that as it may, it fills me with unfettered joy to present: