Emo Philips represents stand-up comedy's revenge of the nerd.
Philips, who opened a six-night stand Tuesday at the Improvisation in Irvine, is unlike anyone else in stand-up. Just look at him: Roughly chopped pageboy hairdo, and layers of mismatched thrift-shop garb hanging on a crane-like frame.
But he's not unlike the wimp with a calculator on his belt who was ridiculed in school by everyone--and who then went on to start a computer company now worth $83 million. Or the socially awkward lad who always had his nose in a book--and is now a prize-winning author or hotshot screenwriter.
In fact, it's a safe bet that Philips was a bookworm as a youngster--and still is. His act is sprinkled with literary and philosophical references--sometimes oblique, sometimes straightforward but always suggesting a keen mind made keener by reading every book he could get his hands on.
In certain bits, Philips mentions Kierkegaard) or Kafka. Neither one of them made it into Tuesday's set, but Philip's third joke sprang from describing a heated argument with his dad over whether "Plato was the father of philosophy."
Later, he recalled sitting in a movie theater and being approached by a man who pointed at the vacant chair next to him and asked "Is this seat saved?" Emo's response: "Well, if Aquinas reasoned that even animals have no souls, how much chance does an inanimate object like a chair have of being saved?"
That's a far cry from the scatological stuff or racist/sexist/misogynistic blabbering prevalent among Philips' comedy compatriots. But Emo's no elitist. They just check your ID at the door, not your IQ. Emo's material is invariably razor sharp and constructed with often-dazzling verbal skill--he obviously loves words--but he does all kinds of jokes that operate on all kinds of levels.
(One consistent strain: An Emo Philips show would carry a PG rating. Profanity doesn't pass his lips, though he occasionally likes to brush up against nasty--and, sometimes, kinky--territory. As a schoolboy, he was asked by a teacher he didn't like, " 'What's five-nineteenths plus four-fifteenths?' My brain started to bleed. She said 'Take it easy--what's our common denominator?' I said, 'A fondness for little girls?' ")
Many of his pieces involve a clever switch, either a last-second maneuver away from the punch line you think he's heading for, or some other kind of twist--sometimes literally: For his young nephew's birthday party, Emo put on a clown suit and entertained the kids, but his nephew complained, " 'Uncle Emo, you're a lousy clown. I want to see a trick.' So I took his dog and twisted him into a balloon."
Clearly, an unconventional mind at work. Still, Philips--who has made a handful of appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman," guest-starred on "Miami Vice" and had his own HBO and Cinemax specials--doesn't have any more tolerance for a dumb question than anyone else. He ran into someone who asked "Haven't I seen you on television?" His reply: "I don't know--you can't see through the other way."
That's about as close as he gets to seeming annoyed. Another trait setting him apart from many current stand-up practitioners: His act projects a rather childlike fascination with the world (assuming the child is a prodigy). Emo is engaging because he comes across as an otherworldly, helpless innocent-- who has a running battle with a persecution complex. Indeed, he sees to it that the joke is often on him:
"My name is Emo, as opposed to an Emu. Which, as you all know, is an Australian bird--a tall, ugly, skinny creature with a big beak. No similarity there."
While never crossing completely into the dreaded prop-comedy zone, he did incorporate some visual business that reflected his brainy absurdism. Toward the end of his set, he attended to a few items of personal hygiene on stage, including flossing his teeth. (Hey, no one said the guy wasn't weird.) Lo and behold, he got the strand of floss stuck in his teeth, which he noted was "the height of irony."
Shortly after another physical piece (stuffing some of his tattered garments into his pants, a moment that would have done Harpo Marx proud), he closed with a vintage Emo line. After thanking the crowd for its warm, spirit-lifting response, he explained why he needed the cheering up: "I loaned a friend of mine $8,000 for plastic surgery, and now I don't know what he looks like."
If only the people who probably taunted Emo as a young nerd could see him now.
Headlining a bill that also includes Tim Rose and Melissa Harrison, Philips continues at the Irvine Improv through Sunday.
The Improvisation Comedy Club and Restaurant is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8 p.m. Thursday; 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday; 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday; 8 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $8-12. Information (714) 854-5455.