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Emo Philips on playing the clarinet and killing Hitler

Photo: Guy Viau
Photo: Guy Viau


In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

Emo Philips boasts one of the most unique voices in comedy—in both the literal sense and in terms of sensibility. He first gained prominence during the 1980s stand-up boom, where his forking, wordplay-filled one-liners, sing-song falsetto, and page-boy haircut cut a sharply oddball contrast to the scores of blazer-clad Seinfeld clones spouting their banal observations and Jack Nicholson impressions. And he’s remained a constant, consistently surprising presence ever since, recording several albums and HBO comedy specials, lending his distinctive voice to animated shows like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Home Movies, Slacker Cats, and Adventure Time, and turning up in movies such as UHF (where he played a memorably clumsy shop teacher). He also maintains a prolific touring schedule, upcoming dates for which can be found at his official website, EmoPhilips.com.

1. What’s the worst job you ever had?

Emo Philips: Probably the worst job I ever had—I was 16, and I got hired by the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to clean up in the back. It was a minimum wage job, but you got all the chicken you could take home. I got fired the first night.

I was mopping up, and the boss—who was only a bit older than I was—said, “Put some elbow grease into it! Work harder! Work faster! Clean that fryer!” I said, “Okay.” He said, “But don’t splash any water into the fryer, because the guy who had the job before you did that, and now he’s covered with third-degree burns in the hospital.” So I did it quite gingerly, and apparently that wasn’t enough for him, so I got fired. But I already took about four times’ worth as much chicken home, in terms of value, than my salary.

But I’m glad I got fired, because I would’ve gotten very heavy with all that free fried chicken. And I was always very thin when I performed. I was 6-foot-2, 135 pounds, naked. If that scale at the train station is anything to go by.

The A.V. Club: That’s kind of your signature look, so that might’ve ruined your showbiz career.

EP: I don’t think I would’ve had the same career, no. For me, it was good to be very thin. It shows off your cheekbones.

AVC: Those are the funniest parts of the face.

EP: Right! I do not have prominent cheekbones. I have very shallow cheekbones. I have to go almost full skull for anyone to see them. I have homeopathic cheekbones—just the essence of a cheekbone.

2. What did your parents want you to be?

EP: I think my dad wanted me to be an accountant, because that’s a nice secure job. But I was not very good at it.

AVC: But you gave it a shot?

EP: Well, in high school they study accounting. And when it’s just addition, it’s fine. I enjoy that. It’s like doing sudoku. I mean, people do that for fun! That’s what I thought the job was. But as soon as you get into it a bit more in college, oh my God. I didn’t last more than four weeks. They throw a lot of other stuff at you, like overhead, and underhead, and underheaded overhead, and overhanded underhead, and undeserved… well, overhead. It was like a bunch of Dick Tracy villains. Underhanded Overhead would be a Dick Tracy villain who was a dishonest bookkeeper.

AVC: Why did your dad pick accounting?

EP: I think he was just estimating my ability to do things. He worked for the post office. You know, there’s no heavy lifting in accounting, so it was considered a very respectable job. Probably, with my complete lack of scientific knowledge—you know, we both thought it was just adding numbers. This is back in the early ’70s, when they really didn’t have machines for that.

I remember in college, someone came to school and gave a sales pitch trying to sell us calculators. They were $450 each. For pocket calculators!

AVC: Did any suckers go for it?

EP: I think they bought a bunch of them! And within five years, you got them on the back of a cereal box.

AVC: If you could only go back in time, right?

EP: I would go back in time and—well, I don’t know how you would make money off that if you had a time machine.

AVC: I don’t know. I would need a calculator.

EP: Yeah, you’re right. Forget the “kill Hitler” thing. If I were to go back in time, I would make a lot of money not buying calculators. I would not buy all the calculators in the world.

3. Who would you pick as your pop culture best friend?

EP: Wow! This is… My brain doesn’t really work that way. If I know it can’t happen, my brain just kind of short circuits. It refuses to do this. It’s like a dog. You want a dog to learn a trick and the dog is saying, “I don’t have to do this so I won’t.” How about someone attainable? John Hodgman. If John Hodgman were a fictional character, I would pick him.

AVC: He’s kind of a fictional character, in some ways.

EP: Don’t say that! Okay. [Sighs.] Sarah Silverman. Now I’m just going by the people’s examples that you sent me. Okay, let me think. I think if Steve Martin were a fictional character, I’d like to hang out with him. Or Woody Allen. Or Charlie Chaplin. If Charlie Chaplin was a fictional character, and I had a time machine. And I’d already made all the money from not buying all the calculators. And my second thing is to kill Hitler, but only after The Great Dictator came out.

AVC: The timing would be really tricky.

EP: Yeah, I would have to play it really correctly.

4. What game show do you think you’d be good at?

EP: I think I’d be really, really good at Jeopardy!. Because being a stand-up comedian has given me an ungainly amount of free time over the years. And I’ve learned quite a bunch of trivia. Ask me anything.

AVC: Ask you anything?

EP: I mean, not your address. Something they would have on Jeopardy! You have to phrase it correctly.

AVC: Okay… “This president was the last president to be elected from the Whig Party.”

EP: Who was… Franklin Pierce?

AVC: Nope. Very close, though.

EP: Who was Benjamin Franklin?

AVC: No.

EP: Who was Uncle Ben?

AVC: No. Do you want the answer?

EP: Yes. They always get the answer.

AVC: Millard Fillmore.

EP: Millard Fillmore! Pierce was 14 and Fillmore was 13. You could be very young back then. People matured earlier… Who would you have said?

AVC: Well, I would’ve said Millard Fillmore.

EP: Well, you knew the answer. Of course! We both have these logical brains, don’t we? You wouldn’t have said the wrong answer because you knew the right one.

AVC: No. Why would I waste anybody’s time like that?

EP: Exactly. Thank you. Yes. You’ll go far. You’ve learned the first thing about answering a question: If you know the right one, don’t give a wrong answer.

5. How would your enemies describe you?

EP: [Sighs.] Should I get on Twitter right now? No.… Hoo boy. Let’s just scratch that. How would my enemies describe me? Like, what kind of enemy? Like an archenemy? Like a comic-book kind of villain?

AVC: Do you have one of those?

EP: I don’t know.

AVC: It seems like you would know.

EP: I’m still around, so therefore no. Unless he’s very subtle. A very subtle villain that would hurt someone’s career over the course of 30 years. He’d be a very patient supervillain. Usually patience is not one of their strong points.

AVC: Or he could just be really ineffective, I guess.

EP: That’s what kind of supervillain I would be. Imagine the setting, okay? It’s the U.N. And they’re watching a big monitor, all the people of the U.N., and I come on the monitor and I’m the supervillain. And I say, “I will destroy a world capital every hour until my demands are met.” And they say, “Okay, what are your demands?” And I’ll say, “Well, dogs cannot bark outside after 11 p.m. on a weekday, or midnight Friday or Saturday, and not before 8 a.m. in the morning or 9:30 on the weekend. Including holidays.” And they’ll say, “Okay, what’s your second demand?” And I’ll say, “Well, that’s it.”

AVC: That seems pretty reasonable.

EP: I think so!

AVC: You might have the world on your side on that one.

EP: Maybe. I don’t know. You know how U.N. people are. They might say, “Well, let’s give him Brasilia. See if he’s serious.” That could’ve been a good Jeopardy! question. “Which is the first capital U.N. leaders would sacrifice to see if a supervillain is serious?” Because they’ve got a lot of regrets about Brasilia. They put it in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hard to fly to and it’s kind of sterile. I think even the Brazilians would want to do it over. I’ve not talked to any Brazilians… I shouldn’t speculate.

AVC: I just looked it up, and Brasilia has some really nice architecture. It’d be a shame to lose it.

EP: Okay, well there you go. Maybe my dog thing is achieved.

6. If a deli named a sandwich after you, what would be on it?

EP: Probably nothing on it. But in it, I think coleslaw for starts. Because I’m known for coleslaw. I don’t know how, but for some reason I’ve become identified with coleslaw.

AVC: Where have you been identified with coleslaw?

EP: Well, in my HBO special, on my record, E=mo², I talk about it. Okay, I guess I know why I’m identified with it. So, it would be sourdough bread and coleslaw.

AVC: So, basically just coleslaw with a side of bread.

EP: Yeah, but think of how much more you’d be able to charge when you call it the Emo Philips! I’m sure that now and then someone would come in and say, “Well, just get me two slices of bread, and also I’ll order some coleslaw.” And they’ll say, “You can’t do that. We know what you’re up to. We know what you’ll do as soon as you leave here.” So they would have to have a very strict enforcement policy.

And it doesn’t have to be sourdough bread—well, yes it does. I like sourdough. It would be a San Francisco special. The Emo Philips.

7. What was your first big grown-up purchase?

EP: [Long pause.] I’m sorry it’s taking so long. I’m going through every decade... I’ve always been on the road and traveling. I never really owned anything… Do clothes count?

AVC: Did you not have clothes prior to being a grown-up?

EP: No, you’re right. That doesn’t count.

AVC: Unless you bought a grown-up suit or something.

EP: A grown-up suit? [Laughs.] A big grown-up suit?

AVC: To wear to grown-up things?

EP: [Laughs.] Does a clarinet count? I bought a clarinet when I was 43. My sister had a clarinet when we were kids, and I had a trombone. And I envied her because it was so light, and I would have to schlep the trombone to school. And I did some research—because I’m a big Woody Allen fan—and he plays an old kind of Dixieland clarinet called an Albert system. And I went online and bought the exact kind of old-fashioned Dixieland clarinet that Woody Allen bought.

I was really scared performing in public for the first time. I played at the Viper Room. Do you know where that is, on Sunset Boulevard?

AVC: I’ve been there. That’s where River Phoenix died. Not because of your clarinet playing.

EP: No, but I believe his ghost might’ve helped me with the fingering. While I was performing I was very nervous, and then suddenly I felt my fingers being placed on certain keys. A very cold kind of touch. And I got through the passage perfectly.

AVC: It’s impressive you picked up an instrument at the age of 43. It only gets harder and harder to learn something like that.

EP: Oh, thank you! Well, like I said, I have an ungainly amount of free time. I did play the trombone as a child, and I played the piano as an adult. But the tough thing about the clarinet is that it’s treble clef. The trombone is bass clef. So it’s like having seven children named Arnold, Bob, Charlie… And then suddenly, “Oh, Arnold, you’re now Charlie. Bob, you’re now Dave. Charlie, you’re now Edward.” Because I never learned to read the treble clefs. I would just play piano by ear. I can read one line of music, but the piano you have to read two lines at the same time—the top and the bottom part. That’s a really weird thing to be able to do. I mean, if I could read two lines of something at the same time, I would get through books twice as fast.

AVC: Did you ever consider a career in music?

EP: I really got super heavy into it and I thought this might be fun to do, but, see, I got into it in ’99, just at the very height of the swing craze revival, when every city in the country had swing clubs. But after about a year the whole thing died.

AVC: You played your first gig, and suddenly swing died.

EP: River’s revenge. [Laughs.] “Listen if you’re going to play anything outside of the Viper Room…” Okay, I’m going back to book a concert at the Viper Room. I won’t even practice. I’ll just get up there and, “Okay, River, tell me what to do.”

AVC: It’s like a Twilight Zone episode. You’re able to play great, but only in this one club.

EP: Yes! A very mild Twilight Zone episode. It would be like the kind of Twilight Zone episode that, if that supervillain was my agent, he would book me on. A homeopathic Twilight Zone episode. Also, a lot of musicians just play one club their whole life, anyway. “Oh, you have a chance to work a gig at Birdland.” “No, I can’t.” “All right, well…”

AVC: And then Rod Serling comes on to say you’ll be there all week… in The Twilight Zone.

EP: Yeah. [Laughs.] “This man has a chance to work a festival in Paris, but he had to turn it down. Because he’s stuck his whole life playing in this extremely hip room on Sunset Boulevard.”

8. What’s your go-to karaoke song?

EP: I’ve only done karaoke once. It was at a bar in Montana about 10 years ago, and the man who ran it was a singer. A really good singer, but a frustrated singer. And whenever anybody else was on but him, he would turn the volume down really low. And then when he did it, he would turn it up again—because he had a nice voice, and no one else did. I don’t blame him. But it does violate the spirit of karaoke. And ever since then I’ve been traumatized, and I’ve never done it.

AVC: Do you remember the song you sang?

EP: I don’t remember the song I sang. I know very few modern-day songs.

AVC: When’s your cut-off for music?

EP: Oh, gosh. Well, obviously I know a few Beatles songs. And maybe a few other pop hits. But basically, I’m most familiar with songs from 1890 to around 1954. “Papa, oh Papa, come home with me now.” Or, “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage.” Those kinds of songs. Anything up until 1954, maybe ’56, let’s say.

AVC: Tin Pan Alley-type stuff?

EP: Exactly, yeah. Which they don’t have at karaoke night. You have to go through the whole book to find anything even close to that.

AVC: They maybe have “Danny Boy.”

EP: Yeah, but it has to be—because I have this cliché barrier that just smacks me right in the face. It’s right next to the reality barrier. It’s a cliché barrier. And I can’t go through that force field. So, it can’t be anything that people have heard. Which really limits the choices. So I don’t go. Do you go? Is it a thing now?

AVC: I’ve gone. I go.

EP: Don’t get your heart too set on it, because look what happened to swing.

AVC: Yeah, it was killed by Emo Philips.

EP: No, no, no, no! It was ruined by that curse! I couldn’t perform anywhere other than the Viper Room. That’s what killed swing. Now I have more guilt on my shoulders.

AVC: It’s okay. I think there were other factors.

EP: I hope so. I think it was because swing requires so much physical exertion. It was like a sport. You had to know physics—you had to know centrifugal force and Newton’s Three Laws—to spin someone and not have their arm snap. To put a girl over your head in the correct way, so you wouldn’t wind up in traction. You need to be in phenomenal shape. If you were born in 1920, my gosh, that generation was in phenomenal condition. Just to have fun, they had to all be athletes. They were like Russian gymnasts just to go out on a Saturday night.

And I think as the years went on, people danced less and less. By the ’60s was the Twist, and that’s not that difficult. I mean, old people do that in the swimming pool. And now people don’t dance at all. They just kind of vibrate like those—do you remember those 1950s football sets where the little pieces just kind of shook a little bit? That’s how young people are. They just take ecstasy and vibrate like those little football pieces. Correct me if I’m wrong!

9. What’s the worst living situation you’ve ever had?

EP: I was staying at someone’s house, and in the next room, they had three rats as pets. And the first couple nights I was fine, but then I started getting sicker and I couldn’t breathe. I would wake up, and it would take me 20 full minutes just until I could stand up. That’s how bad my asthma was. I’m not blaming the rats, because they were very cute. They were just doing their thing, and they were very sweet. It’s not their fault. I mean, I’ve been on the road as a comedian for over 30 years, so I’ve had a lot of weird places that I’ve lived, and a lot of uncomfortable places. But… I just went right to almost losing my life. Imagine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but for bed and breakfasts. Safety would have to come first. And then noisy roommates. And then people having sex next to you. And then people having sex next to you in another room.

AVC: And then rats?

EP: And then no roof. I was in a place in Indonesia with no roof, and it leaked a little bit. But it was warm anyway. Indonesia, it’s right on the equator, so all the days and nights are exactly the same, and the weather, it’s always in the 80s. They don’t have the concept of going to dinner! You invite an Indonesian over to the house for dinner, and he doesn’t know what that means. Whenever they’re hungry for dinner, they just have a little rice and a little chicken and they fry it up. It’s a very even, no pressure life. A lot of the variables have been eliminated.

AVC: That sounds pretty nice.

EP: It frees you. Like, I grew up in Chicago, and when I went to L.A. for the first time, it was February and it was 75 degrees with perfectly blue skies. And I realized how much Midwesterners talk about the weather, and how much of their conversations and their thoughts are the weather. And now you have this whole variable eliminated. And it frees you.

AVC: Now you don’t have to talk to anybody.

EP: [Laughs.] Or your weather conversations are very homeopathic. Like, if you met a homeopathic supervillain who just booked you into the Viper Room to film that Twilight Zone episode, you’d say, “Wow, it’s 74. It might get down to 74 and a half!” “You’re right. I better button that extra button.” That’s the kind of conversation we have in this homeopathic parallel universe. I hope I’ve been using the word “homeopathic” correctly this whole time.

AVC: I think you’ve used it at least three different ways.

EP: I think that’s acceptable. I’ve seen dictionaries where they do that.

AVC: It’s a very homeopathic word.

EP: [Pauses.] I don’t think that definition is in there.

10. Who could you take in a fight?

EP: This is like driving through Texas!

AVC: Because it takes forever?

EP: But it’s nice, though. I think we’re almost by that part where they bury all the Cadillacs. By Amarillo, correct? I did a big mega-church in Amarillo.

AVC: Why?

EP: Why?! Because they hired me!

AVC: I don’t know what answer I was expecting.

EP: I mean, I guess I wouldn’t work a Holocaust denial convention.

AVC: We’ll make it known that Emo Philips is definitely not available for any Holocaust denier conventions.

EP: I think that’s on my website.

AVC: If not, it should be.

EP: It should be, yes. At the very least, it deserves an asterisk.

AVC: Is it in the FAQs?

EP: Yes, I should put it there. Or SAQs: Seldom Asked Questions. Anyway, there’s a whole circuit working churches, you know. Like the Borscht Belt. A lot of comics only work churches, and they make a ton of money. Because a lot of Christians don’t want to go into comedy clubs, because they hear profanity. Bob Newhart’s son booked me into a Catholic university in Washington, D.C., once, and I performed with a gigantic crucifix behind me. Do you know the difference between a cross and a crucifix?

AVC: One has a Jesus nailed to it?

EP: Yes! Yes. So there was this giant Jesus nailed to a crucifix. Now, I think of myself as a clean act, but it’s surprising how many jokes don’t pass the “standing in front of a dying Jesus” test. But the show went fine. I got no complaints. I’m sure someone would have told me if, for instance, water had started coming out of his eyes.

AVC: So… do you want to get back to who could you take in a fight?

EP: Okay. With or without the element of surprise?

AVC: Whatever works for you.

EP: Surprise gives me a lot more options, so let’s make it hard for myself. Let’s say without surprise. When I was in high school they had different activities for gym every two weeks, and one of them was wrestling. I think I was about 125 pounds, but I was 6-foot-2. And they paired me with this short kid who was the same weight. So he was very, very thick. And I pinned him in five seconds, and I’ll always remember the look of astonishment on his face. This was a young boy who had probably been used to losing fights with his cat. He probably lost pillow fights to actual pillows.

So, I think we’d have to go back in time, and after not buying calculators, after killing Hitler—but only after The Great Dictator, such a fan I am of Chaplin—I would probably let that kid win. Because I’m sure his life has not been a bed of roses. I think I would let him win and that would have boosted his self-esteem. I would do that now.

AVC: But what if allowing him to win gave him enough confidence—

EP: To create another Hitler. Yes, I see where you’re going with that. Yes. No, you’re right. I’m glad I pinned him. I stopped another Holocaust. Of course, if I stopped the Holocaust, there would be some people who would deny it… and I would not entertain them. I would not entertain their denial, or their convention. I feel much better about myself now. Thank you! You’re a great therapist!

AVC: Thank you!

EP: That’s all a therapist should really ever do.

AVC: Make you feel better about yourself?

EP: Well, no. What I’m saying is, let’s say you’re a therapist, right? And I say, “I feel really bad, because I accidentally ran over an old lady and she broke her leg.” And you say, “Yes, but what if that old lady was Hitler reincarnated?” “Oh, okay, thank you, yes!” See, that’s all you’ve really got to do.

AVC: What would you call that? The Hitler Method?

EP: Yeah, what could that be called? Now this is a job for Emo Philips. Oh, gosh… Well, there’s a reason I’m a stand-up and not an improv artist. It’ll come to me tonight. That’s the nice thing about stand-up. You write jokes, and if it doesn’t go over, you can change a few words and try it again! It’s a wonderful, Groundhog Day aspect to being a stand-up. The audiences that enjoy it have no idea how many audiences suffered before.

[Note: Philips emailed three hours later with the suggestion “Third Reichian.” —ed.]

11. Do you have anybody’s autograph?

EP: The only autograph I have is Philip Glass. I’m a big Philip Glass fan. I was in a car, driving to L.A., and I remember they played “Facades” on KUSC, which is the classical station, and it was one of the most enchanting and mesmerizing moments of my life. I became a Philip Glass fan at that moment. And I actually met him a few times. I was on a plane—they used to have a plane called People’s Express—and it flew from New York to Chicago. It was like the bus, except at 50,000 feet. And I saw Philip Glass on the flight, so I sat next to him for about 20 minutes—until he changed his seat.

AVC: Because of you?

EP: Because of me. I was not a great conversationalist back then.

AVC: But before he left, you got his autograph?

EP: No, I didn’t. But a friend of mine met him about 10 years later and gave me this gigantic poster: “To Emo Philips from Philip Glass.” Very minimalist autograph.

AVC: Do you think he would’ve autographed it for you had he known you were the guy from that flight?

EP: Well, I’ve seen him about two dozen times since then, and I’ve tried to meet him, and I went to lectures by him, and... This is sounding very sad, isn’t it?

AVC: Well, you’re not turning up at his house.

EP: [Laughs.] No, I never went to his house. I don’t even know where he lives. You want to hear something interesting?

AVC: Yes.

EP: He was giving a lecture, and he said, “Well, I’ve got to get going because I promised my daughter I would take her to Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Isn’t that sweet? He’s a sweet man. There was a Q&A, and someone asked him, “Do you ever read reviews?” He said, “I don’t read reviews. Once I read a review, and it was a negative review, and I was so upset, I could not compose for an entire hour.”

There’s so many people, like composers or comedians or novelists, who suffer from writer’s block. And for him, even an hour was unexceptionable. Unacceptable! I’ve been using words wrong. Wrongly! Oh my God, this is contagious! It’s had a homeopathically adverse effect on my vocabulary. That’s okay, though. If I had a better vocabulary, I might start a Holocaust. I might lead the masses with my eloquence.

12. The bonus question comes from Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields: What is the worst interview you’ve ever had?

EP: The worst interview I ever had, I was performing at Yuk Yuk’s in London, Ontario. I did a morning TV show, and for whatever reason, it was a remote, and the producer interviewed me on the street. And I don’t think he’d ever done it before. I would start telling a joke, and he’d interrupt me about five words in. I’m trying to think of what I could have done…

Okay. Get into the time machine. Don’t buy any calculators. Make friends with Chaplin. Kill Hitler after The Great Dictator. Then go back to the ’90s for this interview, and very, very gently, put my finger right towards his lips and delicately say, “I’ll get to that in an instant.”

Wow, you are a great therapist! I feel better now!

AVC: My pleasure. What question would you like to ask the next person?

EP: “If human brains are finite, and God is infinite, that means we can never know the mind of God. Therefore, is not then the only true blasphemy that of accusing someone of blasphemy?” See what he does with that.

AVC: Do you have an answer?

EP: No! That’s why I’m happy to have someone else come to my aid.