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The Flip Sides of Emo Philips

December 20, 1987|DUNCAN STRAUSS

The essence of Emo.

That's what I was after. No one knows what Emo Philips is really like (well, except maybe his mom) because the gangly, slow-talking, 31-year-old comedian apparently refuses to break character in public. Even when he's off stage, he's "on." He doesn't know when to quit. In interviews, even in casual conversation, the next joke or bit is just seconds away.

Mostly, he uses stuff right from his act (and a strong act it is, strong enough that it has landed him a record deal, a fistful of "Late Night with David Letterman" gigs and two cable TV specials). Sometimes he'll use lines from his press biography (which he wrote himself). Sometimes his gags and wordplay (this man never met a pun he didn't like) will actually be spontaneous. But Emo rarely strays too far from his basic stand-up persona, lest he actually say something self-revealing.

I wanted to cut through all that.

As well-versed in all things Emo as I could make myself, I met him for dinner. My dinner with Emo.

As we sat down at a classy Italian restaurant, not far from the Improv in Irvine where he was appearing, the prospects didn't appear all that promising. Apparently unfazed by Emo's appearance (pageboy hairdo, oddly striped pants and several layers of tattered garments barely covering a pajama top) the waiter politely greeted us and asked for our drink order. Emo ordered a glass of water with no ice; I asked for water with ice, which prompted Emo to lean forward and say:

"Oooo, big spender."

Worse, after the waiter arrived, Emo raised his glass and said with a smile: "As the skiers say in Israel--Slalom."

Now I'm thinking: This is going to be a long night. I'm pursuing a mission impossible. That line was an Emo hat trick: It's in his act and in his bio, and he's used it in countless interviews. I had decided beforehand, though, that there was no way to deter him from tossing out his free-standing jokes.

What was important was staying with questions, resolutely, beyond his initial response, beyond the inevitable gag/pat answer. And sure enough, every topic ended up verbal volleyball: Every time I'd ask him a straight question, he'd act as if I was just lobbing him a straight line, so I'd ask him again.

We kept it up for two hours. And what happened? Well, Emo probably won on points, but I walked away with a decent consolation prize: clues about what kind of traits--indeed, what kind of person--lurks behind that goofy facade.

It turned out to be a mixture of the pretty much expected (he seems to be a somewhat insecure man, very concerned with cultivating a specific image) and the unexpected (he's worried about ruffling certain show business feathers, and even more worried about money--especially surprising given that he's probably pulling about $10,000 a week these days).

The first chink in his batty armor developed during a series of questions about benefit shows. The night before our dinner, Emo had performed along with other comics and actors in a benefit for the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. I mostly wanted to broach the subject because, unlike many of his peers, he almost never participates in benefits.

"True, I don't do a lot of benefits," he replied. "But I'm a very charitable sort. During the last couple of years, I've donated quite a bit of money to deprived inner-city youths.

"Not voluntarily."

Rimshot. But I stuck with it . I rephrased the question; he did another joke. One more time:

Why don't you do many benefits?

"Well, I think the spirit of comedy is antithetical to benefits," he said, starting to fidget with his menu. "It's like a leak in the boat--suddenly, there's something you can't joke about, and that's whatever the benefit is (for). And I think that's antithetical to the spirit of comedy, which is that you should be able to offend everyone."

Atta boy, Emo! Not so much for promoting the right "to offend everyone" (his act is squeaky-clean and free of slurs anyway) but for cutting the--uh, corn --and stating a real-life opinion. Much less one that doesn't exactly align him philosophically with the organizers of, say, Comic Relief. Maybe there is an actual human being here, after all.

On the other hand, he wasn't exactly Dorothy pulling the curtain wide open, completely exposing the little man at the controls. Far from it. He quickly retreated to the safety of material and rote responses--and offbeat behavior, such as gargling with the water, ostensibly to help sooth his hoarse throat.

In other words, Emo went right back to "doing" Emo. Not surprising. But I took a new tack. Confront him directly. I noted that in reading other interviews with him, and in talking to people about him, his refusal to break character had emerged as a running theme.

"Running theme?" he fired back instantly. "That sounds like the name you give an Indian child who becomes an English major."

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