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Sharp Wit Hides Behind Comic's Oddball Facade


Emo Philips hates to break character.

That character, as played by the slow-speaking, gangly comedian in Page Boy and mismatched thrift-shop garb, is an otherworldly, helpless innocent, battling a persecution complex while making absurd observations about everything from physics to cole slaw.

Add to the mix his deliberate delivery, and Philips comes across like a sort of Rodney Dangerfield on Valium. ("When I was 10, my parents moved to Downers Grove, Ill. When I was 12, I found them.")

Then there are lines such as "Ambiguity is the devil's volleyball," among others, that hint of a sharp intellect behind the oddball facade.

This peculiar style has helped propel Philips to the head of the stand-up comic class, and has earned him a guest appearance on "Miami Vice," as well as stints on "Late Night With David Letterman" and his own comedy specials on Cinemax and HBO. He also has recorded two comedy albums and created an award-winning series of radio commercials for Dove Bar ice cream.

Even when he is not performing, Philips, who is appearing tonight( at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, is always "on."

Of course, he claims there's simply not much difference between the two Emos.

Asked about the difference between the person versus the persona in a recent telephone interview, Philips responded: "Well, in my act, I get more girls. And I dress better on stage. But they're pretty much the same. I try to look at life very positively. I'm not a fatalist. Even if I was, what could I do about it?"

Ask him a straight question, it turns out you're just lobbing him a straight line. For example, an inquiry about how he came by his dotty sartorial style, Philips answered:

"Oh, I've always been on the vanguard of fashion," he sighed. "In fact, even in high school, whenever I had a little money, I'd be at the clothing store, buying Nehru jackets like they were going out of style. . . ."

Well, there were a few brief moments when Emo wasn't "on."

Reminded that another off-center comic, Steven Wright, has explained that his hyper-deadpan delivery sprang from severe nervousness, Philips was asked about his own languid speech pattern.

"If I do have a deliberate tone to my voice on stage, it's because I'm speaking bon mots of truth. So every syllable must be savored like a haiku poem. I mean, I don't want to lose anyone," he said.

Similarly, asked why it seems that David Letterman is always on the verge of throttling him when he's on "Late Night With David Letterman," Philips was a bit more forthcoming.

"Well, it's not an easy show to do," he said. "It's like being on a tightrope with alligators under you. It's a very exciting show because it's very honest and it's very alive--no show business hype. . . . And you'd better be sharp when you're talking with Dave."

Unlike many of the other comics who have captured public--and media--attention recently, Emo Philips doesn't scream or swear. Nor does he fool with material that is racist or sexist.

Instead of projecting an angry view of the world, Philips displays a childlike fascination with it--filtered through a cerebral, often-absurd sensibility ("I'm not as good a swimmer as I used to be--thanks to evolution," or "I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, 'Look what's telling me that' ").

So if he might seem to lack the bite or comic edge of some of his darker-minded compatriots, children (or FCC officials) could sit comfortably through an Emo Philips show. "I try to keep it nice and clean--no matter how unfunny that makes it," he explained.

And that's no joke. Or is it?

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