Emo Philips is still ... Emo

Downers Grove native returns to play 6 shows in Chicago

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 a sample, is a perfect joke in just four words that he delivered at the 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 email 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 '80s, 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 1990s I moved to the U.K.; 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 Theatre this year in that Geico 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 composed 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?

CHICAGO
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