It may surprise those who remember Emo Philips from his white-hot 1980s days to learn that Downers Grove's favorite son is still performing stand-up comedy, and, at 56, still doing it the same way: as a sort of querulous, bowl-cut man-child squeaking out devastatingly clever one-liners.
Here, as just a sample, is a perfect joke in just four words that he delivered at he Edinburgh Festival in Scotland two years ago: "It's birthday season approaching."
If you go for that sort of spiritual-brother-of-Steven-Wright-and-Mitch-Hedberg thing, there's a chance to catch Philips live here, to hear the way such jokes ripple through a crowd, so differently from the brand of stand-up that is about the comic's force of personality. He'll play six shows over three nights next Thursday through Saturday at the Zanies on Wells Street, the club that was his launching pad and that has enshrined him in a big wall poster, along with the likes of Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.
Philips prefers e-mail interviews, and that was just fine with us. This one was conducted over the course of several days last week, and only the second answer is really long.
Q: I was delighted to note that you have addressed the whole emo music issue. Congratulations on starting a movement, a very sensitive movement.
A: I'm not at all happy that my name was swiped for that music genre, but what can I do? My dad BeBop Philips suffered the same sad fate.
Q. You've had a long run in comedy, but there've been some bumps, and maybe even some forks, in the road. Describe your career journey, please.
A: I grew up in Downers Grove; I started doing stand-up at the age of 20. This was back in 1976, around the time (coincidence?) that the first comedy clubs were starting. The young comedians of today gasp when I tell them how many shows I did that first year: 500. Five nights a week, I would start the show at the Comedy Womb in Lyons, and then I would drive to the Comedy Cottage in Rosemont to end the show -- or vice versa.
The years went by, and other rooms opened up in and around Chicago; then in the early eighties, the big one: Zanies. I was at Zanies from the get-go; in fact, I was the first person to book the entertainment there. Somehow anyway, the club survived.
By 1983 I was playing all around the country, and in 1984 I had my first national exposure: the David Letterman Show. That appearance led to an LP record on Epic (the label Michael Jackson was on), a half-hour Cinemax Comedy Special, a one-hour HBO Special, a second record, and a second Letterman appearance. In 1988 I had a part in "Weird Al" Yankovic's movie, "UHF," a role I am proud of to this day: I play a handsome shop teacher who demonstrates table saw safety.
In the early 1990's I moved to the UK; I had a run at a theater in the West End, and my own Channel 4 television special. In 1995 I went to Australia, and made another huge splash. My career has slowed since then; I blame the laziness of our ancestors for not starting more English-speaking colonies.
Q: You live in LA these days, by which I mean, you have forsaken Downers Grove. How could you?
A: I count myself extremely lucky to have grown up in Downers Grove. Ah, the experiences I had! The vast majority of which, to quote Nietzsche, made me stronger. And to see the Tivoli Theater this year in that Geiko commercial! I pert near jumped out of my chair. (Thank goodness for the straps.)
Q: Have you read the novel "Downers Grove," which is supposed to be yet another "modern-day Holden Caulfield" thing, and which they have apparently come very close to making into a movie?
A: If I'm in the film, may I humbly suggest Adrian Brody?
Q: On the wall at the downtown Zanies, you are enshrined via the really big posters on the wall, not just the little headshots. Do you feel sorry for the little-headshot people?
A: It's a great honor just to get on the wall at Zanies. In fact, I seem to remember one comedian who actually got bricked up behind it. (Or perhaps I've just been reading too much Poe).
Q: Wikipedia says your comic style is comprised of " paraprosdokians and garden path sentences spoken in a wandering falsetto tone of voice and a confused, childlike delivery." How do you react to something like that? Did you have any idea, before clicking on the link, what a paraprosdokian was?
A: Then what's that lamb thing they keep warm till 3 a.m. to serve to drunks on pita bread?
Q: How have you changed your style over the years, and why is or isn't that necessary?
A: Some comedians change their style, often to their advantage; but I see no reason why I can't continue with the "urbane sophisticate" 'til the day I die.
Q: You had a joke voted the funniest religious joke of all time, and by the Internet, no less. How does that feel?
A: Like a million likes!
Q: I'd ask you to tell an abridged version of it, but part of its glory, of course, is in the long walk to the end of the plank.
A: While your print editor might shy at the space it takes, there is no reason your web users need go without: http://www.emophilips.com/video/video/244.
Q: Your web site implies that this joke has been, um, borrowed many times over the years. Is that true, by whom, and what would you do if you were face to face with a comedian who had borrowed it?
A: Whenever I've heard, through the grapevine, that my Baptist joke was told sans accreditation, it's always been by a pastor in one of his sermons; never by a comedian. We tend to be an honest lot.
Q: What can Chicagoans who come to your shows expect? How are you balancing them between old and new material?
A: I always try to have as much new material as I can, especially when I play a club I've returned to so many times throughout the years such as Zanies, but I might perhaps throw in a few classics here and there, just to assure the crowd that I'm the same Emo Philips they came to see so they don't ask for a refund.
Q: What's the best joke you've written in recent months?
A: Let me go through my notes and send it by itself tomorrow. I'll hang a note around its neck, because it's never travelled through the Internet on its own before.
A:(part 2). "I prefer smart audiences because smart people don't heckle. If a smart person doesn't like a comedian, he just blames himself for not having more assiduously researched his entertainment options. Stupid people shout, 'You suck.' Smart people think, 'I suck, for not Googling him.'"
Q: In terms of paying the bills, are you doing any joke writing for hire, like for the "Tonight Show" or awards shows or the like?
A: No, but I'd be happy to make an exception for your Pulitzer.
Q: Do you think your stage persona might be, in some ways, a hindrance? Here's why I ask: When I think "Emo Philips," I readily picture that persona, yet that picture has tended to obscure, over the decades, my memory of how very good the jokes are.
A: I'm sorry, but it's very difficult for me to wrap my head around your question. (I knew my incomplete mastery of Zen would catch up to me someday.)
Q: Many writers have tried to describe the persona. Which is your favorite among the attempts?
A: There have been many remarkable ones, but the only one I can remember here in my hotel room (perhaps because of its alliteration) is People magazine's "a cross between Peter Pan and a plucked chicken."
Q: Perhaps you have one of your own?
A: "The most interested man in the world."
Q: Here's my stab at it, and it is simply a joke from your act, early on: "I had a very close relationship with another child. I was his imaginary friend."
A: The irony, of course, being that I am the audience's only true friend, for only I tell them the truth. Deep!
Q: Why did you move overseas, and do you think moving to the UK, then Australia, hurt your career back here?
A: I think the last person whose career was hurt by too many hemispheres was Magellan. Besides, even though I might not be on TV every week, I'm still going strong on my almost four-decade streak of never having to do anything else for a living other than to get up on a stage and make people laugh. I've never lost sight of how lucky I've been in that respect. When you've squeezed into the last helicopter out of Saigon, you don't moan that you didn't get a window seat.