Emo Phillips is a cult comedian, a thin, pasty, grungy-looking figure in grab-bag threads and a dank pageboy whose fuse-blown eyes suggest someone raising himself unsteadily from a month of lost weekends jammed back-to-back. He writhes and waves his skinny right arm like a schoolkid desperately calling for permission to make, and he pulls up his laceless shoes knee high as though life's pilgrim trail was impacted with animal droppings.
Judging from his audience at the Beverly Theater over the weekend, Phillips' constituency consists mainly of college age kids--or people close enough to it to recall what it feels like to be stressed-out by the pressure of making grades and by being shunted off at an academic siding while the real world makes the news.
Phillips is a walking post-adolescent Rorschach, where anxieties over parental reproach inflame masochistic fantasies ("You have self-destructive tendencies," his school psychologist tells him. "Go for it"). And he offers the ultimate solution for sexual insecurity--necrophilia ("From the way she responded," he says of his latest conquest, "you'd think she was conscious, from the tip of her head to the tag on her toe"). Occasionally his material is peppered with intellectual-sounding riffs that pass for hip (his girlfriend's disdainful father tells him, "I'll be frank," to which he replies, "Well you look like an anthropomorphic weenie. . .").
Phillips holds the recalcitrant appeal of the party animal (though he refers to himself as "a party vegetable"), but he also reveals some frayed wiring within, the Kafka-esque thin man escaped from Bluto's body with a bag of torments on his back. And he comes along at a time when the randomness of performers is designed to shake up the rules of performance, just as, five or six years ago, Steve Martin's grinning self-infatuation was intended to expose the hollowness of a lot of what passed as celebrity.
(Phillips has been on "David Letterman," and has hosted Cinemax and HBO specials, as well as recording two albums.)
Phillips is not an overtly hostile performer, and a lot of his lines have snap (appearing before a judge who asks "Do you know the penalty for drunken driving in Massachusetts?" he disingenuously answers, "Oh, I don't know. Re-election to the Senate?"). But that wigged-out urchin winsomeness is hard to take over two hours, and it's a bit of a cop-out--this Snookums has razor-sharp teeth, even if he only uses them on his own thumb (or, as he says "Some days it just doesn't pay to gnaw through your leather straps").
A lot of his material is patterned around a bait-and-switch approach, in which his wan falsetto pipes a line that suggests one thing and follows it with another. For example, "When I was born, they threw away the mold. Some of it grew back." And "I visited my grandmother for Easter. Well, I had to go to the attic anyway."
A lot of it is just dumb ("Wanna see my tribute to Elvis? 'Thanks, Elvis' "), consciously so perhaps, as if enlisting everyone in the question, "How much can we get away with?"
A comedian who works with self-hate, as Phillips does, runs the risk of piteousness when his humor isn't up to displacing his pain. At one point, he characteristically offers the image of visiting a womb-like relaxation spa, which only gives him flashes of "a guy in a white coat trying to jab me with an ice pick for half an hour." In one respect, it plays to the gloom of anyone who has ever felt unwanted and unloved (and who hasn't?), but in another, collected with so many like observations, it suggests the truly pathetic--particularly when there's not enough sparkle to lighten the funk.