Emo Philips: Back, without the fringe

After an eight-year absence, Emo Philips, once America's weirdest comedy export, is back at the festival. What has he been doing?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At first I didn't recognise him. He looked almost, well, normal. And normal is a word rarely uttered with reference to Emo Philips, by far America's weirdest comedy export, who shot to fame with distinctive goggle-eyed amazement in the early 1980s with appearances on Late Night With Letterman and Friday and Saturday Night Live. Gone is the signature hair-do – a geeky long back bob with a ruler-drawn fringe – that suggested he'd just stepped out of an institution, rather than a salon. Gone, too, is the gangling frame, variously described as "stick insect" and "ET", replaced by a comfortable stockiness.

"Hello," he says, the word cracking and rising to a characteristic questioning pitch, as if his larynx never quite made it through puberty. And then, with a childlike shyness that begs his old fringe to hide under, "Um, pleased to meet you." He is far from shy though. Within seconds of sitting down, the conversation has travelled from yoga to chimp behaviour. "Their society is very complex," he says, of the primates. "They're even more manipulative than humans, plotting and overthrowing one another; go to a chimp tribe and it's like entering the court of Louis XVI."

Conversation with Philips is like playing ping-pong with greased bats; more a flash flood of consciousness than a stream, it's almost impossible to get a serious answer out of him. Just when you think you've lost him entirely, he brings the conversation back to your original question only to deliver an elaborately set up punchline. He does, though, eventually open up to questions.

His press material trumpets: "Back after an eight-year hiatus", to which he responds, "Gee, that's a euphemism". So what has he been doing? "Weeeeeell, I fell in love and got married," he squeaks, his left hand displaying a defiantly funky square-shaped ring. "Y'know, I really wanted to, and she wanted to become a US citizen."

If all Emo's one-liners came with a comedy drum-roll, he would be accompanied by a marching band. Jay Leno called him the best joke-writer in America, and a recent comedy edition of GQ voted three of his jokes among the best 75 jokes of all time (Stephen Wright was the only other comic to have as many chosen).

His hair, now grey, stands in unkempt fluffy spikes. Wearing a crumpled silver T-shirt with inflatable valves on the front, and a giant space-age watch that dwarfs his wrist, he looks like he's waiting to be beamed back to his flying-saucer after spending the past eight years investigating illegal parties in the California desert. Does the new look reflect a new phase in the Emoverse?

"I never thought my previous haircut was strange – it was the most flattering cut for my face. But as I got older, my face got bigger." He fidgets with his tresses. "You get to 45 and your face is no longer pretty enough to frame. It's like having road-kill and putting a frame around it. Maybe Damien Hirst would get away with that but I'm just a regular sheep."

So did he have a Samson moment when he cut his hair? "Aside from the blindness, yes," he replies. His Baptist upbringing ensures that he can fire off entire chunks of the Old Testament as quick as he can one-liners. "I was very afraid the first time I went on stage with short hair, but I got bigger laughs than ever," he says. And has the material changed likewise? "When I started out, a lot of my material was about being a child," he explains. "But now I'm older, the jokes have become about adult things – marriage, politics, the environment. I want to teach young people the best way to live their lives. I want to help others." Care in the community, I ask? Before I can blink, he retorts, "Yes, I've certainly benefited from that".

That Philips got married is a revelation; this is a man who built a career around jokes about his retarded sexuality. We now hear less of the damaged childhood, and more about his love of young ladies – with a taboo-testing emphasis on young.

The conversation turns to Chris Morris and the recent Brass Eye paedophilia episode. "It's Morris's job, to try to get away with offending," he explains, looking as close to earnest as I've yet seen. "To me, Morris is a very skilled heart surgeon who now and again will lose one; but how many has he saved? If society keeps saying 'don't do this, don't do that', eventually people will be too scared to do anything. I wish we had him in America."

Aside from getting married, Philips has been trying his hand at novel-writing and getting back into making short films. Meet the Parents, the Robert De Niro/Ben Stiller comedy, was based on an independent film of the same name, made for $35,000 by Philips and Greg Glienna. "Our entire budget was a percentage of De Niro's salary too minute to work out," says Philips, clearly not a fan of the Hollywood version. "It suffers from some really sloppy writing." Does he see a future in film rather than stand-up? "No, no, no. I'm very much a comic. In the past two years, I must have toured three weeks out of every month. My wife hates it; being apart is tough," he says sounding every bit the newly-wed. But, yet again, here comes the punchline, as prevalent as punctuation. "Perhaps when we have children, I'll enjoy it more."

The image and the material may have matured, but the thought of Philips as a parent – now that is funny.

Emo Philips is at the Pleasance, Venue 33, (0131-556 6550) to 27 August

Comments