Comedy will be the rock 'n' roll of the '80s," according to the conventional wisdom of the time. If the statement used to ring true, it did so thanks to the meteoric '80s ascent of stand-up comics like Emo Philips. Combining an elfin appearance with an effortless barrage of absurdity, Philips' unique brand of humor graced numerous talk shows, two excellent comedy albums (E=MO2 and At The Hasty Pudding Theatre), a cable special, and the stand-up circuit. The '90s found Philips keeping a lower profile—a fact he explains, somewhat, in this interview—limiting himself largely to cameos in friend "Weird Al" Yankovic's projects. During that time, Philips also executive-produced and appeared in Greg Glienna's low-budget 1992 comedy Meet The Parents, recently remade with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. The turn of the millennium also marks Philips' return both to the Internet (via the elaborate web site emophilips.com) and to stand-up, minus his trademark Sherwood Forest haircut but with his humor intact. Philips recently discussed his mysterious existence with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: I heard a rumor that you that you've spent some of the last five years reading 27,000 books. Is this true?
Emo Philips: Who told you that?
O: I think it came through your publicist.
EP: Isn't he funny? Well, yeah, I don't know 27,000. I do like to keep my mind active.
O: I heard you actually took time off to read. True or false?
EP: [Laughs.] Took time off. I just read during… Yeah, I don't know. I'm not reading anything right now. I'd love to say it was true, but it isn't. I'm sorry.
O: Of the books you've read in the last five years, even if it's not 27,000, what was your favorite?
EP: I really liked Edward Gibbon's Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. Have you read that? It's wonderful. I think it's good to know more than the average guy about that. If I'm in a bar now and some pretty girl is talking to some handsome 24-year-old man, I'll say, "Okay, who's the emperor after Caligula? What chief mistake did Marcus Aurelius make in choosing a successor? He'll just look like an idiot. She'll just gravitate toward me, I'm thinking. It works in Detroit.
O: They're big on the Roman Empire there?
EP: No, they don't know anything about it, so I've got open sailing. I'm working a club there now; it's connected to a bowling alley.
O: Are you doing a long-term engagement there?
EP: Yeah, I've been at a hotel for a week, and I'm the only person here. It's like The Shining. The window opens only four inches to prevent suicide, which is great, unless they cancel Ally McBeal. Then they'll have to make it two inches. It's a nice hotel. They have videos you can rent. I saw Armageddon for the first time.
O: What did you think?
EP: If an asteroid is coming toward you, you don't have to blow it up. You just have to slow it down long enough for our country to rotate out of the way.
O: The rest of the world be damned?
EP: Oh, Canada gets a free ride again.
O: I was on your web site, and it's really elaborate.
EP: Isn't it something? It's run by guys called Space Dog, and it's very flashy. It kind of moves and tinkles, with a lot of bells and whistles. It's really astounding what those guys can do. I can't even program my telephone, but those guys are like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. They go right into the computer and tingle with it a bit. It's just astounding. My nephew had a computer and it beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick-boxing. I'm no Luddite, you know.
O: I saw on there that there's also a Stalker Watch. Has that been a big problem for you?
EP: Actually, yeah. Unfortunately, with the web site I let people know where I'm playing, and that lets a lot of weirdoes find me, like… This is kind of personal: I was going out with this woman for a while, an ex-girlfriend, and she tracked me down, unfortunately. It was very weird. She's bipolar, frigid no matter which way you try to hump her. She said, "Emo, I'm looking for a new house that reflects my personality." I said, "Does it have to be real gingerbread?" I don't want to put her down, so I'm not gonna say her name. I think she has weekly lessons with the devil on how to be more evil. I don't know what she charges him.
O: You're married now, though. How is married life treating you?
EP: It's very, very nice. I'm on the road and I miss her terribly, but I'm sure that once I have kids it'll be great being on the road. I've always wanted to have a wonderful, beautiful wife who loves me to death, and she's always wanted to be an American, so it's working out really well. You should get married. When I was younger, I was into the fame and fortune, and now I realize that a loving wife and happy children—that's life's greatest consolation prize.
O: So, despite the fame and fortune, you decided to lay low and read Gibbon. What was behind that decision?
EP: Um, I'd have to ask my subconscious, and I can't really access it. It's interesting how the subconscious works, and my theory is that we're all evolved from the chimpanzees, and that in nature there's a head chimpanzee that runs the tribe. As soon as that chimp shows any weakness, as soon as he gets to middle age, the young males gang up and choose a different chimp to be the head of the tribe. And it's pretty nasty, what they do to the older chimp. They'll tear his skin off, because chimps are four times stronger than people are, so they'll actually eat his skin. They'll eat him alive, almost. They'll tear his limbs off and it's pretty nasty, so I think subconsciously we've evolved so that if a guy reaches middle age, he kind of tends to lay low a bit to avoid being eaten by younger chimps. It's not gonna happen, but he often becomes like a Polonius instead of a Claudius. Like, for instance, Leonard Bernstein stopped composing and just started directing Beethoven. Rossini had a very famous mid-30s where he stopped composing and started conducting. That's often what happens. Who else? Me. 'Cause the guys who keep going like Beethoven pretty much go insane. So it goes against all nature after the age of 35, or whatever, to keep doing it gung-ho. There were not young chimpanzee composers that were going to tear Leonard Bernstein's ear off, but subconsciously he didn't know that. The subconscious is like having a laboratory assistant who pretends to love you and help you, but after you go home to go to sleep it goes back into the lab and starts fumbling with the data and destroying it. It's a very tricky thing. People think our minds are us, but that's not true at all. The mind is not us.
O: The mind is apart from personality?
EP: Yeah. For instance, look at a fat person. He says, "I want to lose weight." That is the last time he is in control of his mind, his will, his choice. After that, other parts of the mind take over, like the part that runs the upper hamstrings. And he says, "Actually, look what's on TV: the Olympics. I can't not watch the Olympics; they're only on once every four years." And things like that happen, and the poor fat person stays fat and never gets a chick.
O: With all that, why return to stand-up now?
EP: I just realized that I loved it, subconscious be damned. I'm going full hog with this thing and having a great time. I've been at this 26 years now: After a while, you get as jaded as the proverbial gynecologist who no longer enjoys drugging and violating his patients. But I tell you, when I do the little comedy clubs, it makes me realize why I got into this racket in the first place: to pick up skanks. But now I can't, 'cause I'm married, so maybe I'll read more Gibbon.
O: How do you feel about the debate over violent and sexual material in the media?
EP: Well, Hollywood is pretty good at not showing violence, at least not the after-effects. It's like a fairy tale: The guy gets the girl and that's where the story ends. It's like that with media, like, you'll shoot someone in the head and then you move on. That's where the story ends. You don't have to look at the corpse, you don't have to see the corpse losing its bowels on television, and you don't have to smell it on TV. You spend a few days with a dead person like I have, and it's not as cute as you think it is. Once you get to the other senses, it's not very cute. Dead people smell horrible.
O: Who gets your endorsement for the presidential election?
EP: That's a tough question. I think they're both hellbent on taking away our liberties. I would have to say that if you choose of two devils, you've got to pick the most incompetent one. I think Gore is very intelligent, so you don't want to choose him. I think Bush is one of those cute little fumbly Disney devils from the film Hercules with his pitchfork, and he's always getting into shenanigans. He's the one I would have to choose, because he's like the cute little fumbling devil, and he'll probably even make things better; that's how fumbling he is. So I would have to vote for Bush. It's a tough question. I'm reminded of H.L. Mencken's line—this is from back in the Harding election, I think—where he likens the American populace to a fellow who's at a banquet, and there are all the wonderful foods of the world on top of the banquet table, and he's under the table feasting on the flies. I don't believe that, of the 280 million people in the country, these are the best two guys we could come up with. Either of these guys wouldn't have made the last six, so I don't get it.
O: Did you watch Survivor?
EP: No, I didn't. I don't watch TV much. Was Survivor good?
O: I found myself watching it against my will.
EP: There you go. See, you've got to say… Well, it's funny, because my mom was watching Touched By An Angel, and I came into the living room and said, "Why are you watching this?" I look at it, and there's a little black kid and he's an orphan and he's donated his kidney to a little baby that's born without a head and there's violins and I'm crying my eyes out for three seconds. So, TV, they know what they're doing. They know all the tricks.
O: What's the story behind the remake of Meet The Parents? You produced the original, right?
EP: I didn't produce it, because that would require math skills. I executive-produced it, which means I paid for it and midwifed it. Greg Glienna, who's the writer, director, actor, and editor, would call me all the time and bounce things off me, like the jokes—or sometimes a baseball, like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Kind of helps him think. He and I showed it all over the place. I would do comedy clubs and show it afterwards, and we would cut out the things that didn't get a laugh. We showed it in Chicago for a few months and it got gigantic, wonderful reviews. In England, we showed it at the National Film Theater in London, and all over the place. It was a very funny film, but it wasn't big enough to release. A lot of movies are like rocket ships: You can make a phenomenal rocket ship for $100,000, but you're not going to compete with NASA. It takes at least $10 million to promote a film, maybe $30 million. So we didn't have enough money for a national release. We sold the rights to Universal, and now look what happened. It's very exciting. I'm associate producer of [the new film], and I think John Stuart Mill would have been very happy: It's the greatest laughter for the greatest number. It's very Utilitarian, and we're very happy. It could have been like The Bachelor or something, which was a remake of [Buster Keaton's] Seven Chances.
O: Which is a great movie. The Bachelor is not.
EP: That's what I've heard. I haven't seen it. So I'm very happy. My goodness, it's like having a dream. It's like Meet The Parents is a little film, and then you have a dream: "Oh, I dreamt that Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro were in it and it was a billion-dollar whatever." If you look on a web site called meetthefilmmakers.com, that tells you the story about our film.
O: You cut your hair.
EP: Yeah, you get over 40 and it just doesn't look right to have it, you know? I thought for the new millennium I'd… Okay, I had lice. You happy? You can't cure lice anymore. Those things at the drugstore don't work. You just shave it. I like the shorter hair now. It dries much faster.
O: Were you wary about it at all? It's one of your trademarks.
EP: It was one of my trademarks, and once it grows back I might go back to it. But the laughter is just as big, if not bigger, than ever before, so it's hard to know. A lot of people don't recognize me, which is great, because people always recognized me in the old days. "Are you Emo? Are you Emo?" Then they'd give me a subpoena.
O: In comedy, where do you see your influence today?
EP: I don't know if it's an influence, but I've always kind of pushed the envelope in terms of trying to get away with things no one else was going near. I always thought of myself like a mouse trying to get cheese that no one else could get without getting their tail snipped off. I'm not saying it's my influence, exactly, but I do think the whole country has gotten quite… It's amazing in the last 20 years how… What's the word? Not scatological, but… Yeah, scatological. Not that I was scatological, but very shocky. And now the whole country, even in corporate America… I saw an ad in The New Yorker where there's a corporate board meeting and one guy's on the toilet. You never would have seen that four years ago. AT&T, I think, had something like, "Here's a reason to subscribe to AT&T: 1) 'cause it helps you, 2) 'cause whatever, 3) 'cause your girlfriend has pictures of you naked." That's corporate America! When I was a kid, my goodness, corporate America was a bunch of stolid white guys in gray suits trying to be serious, and now it's stolid white guys in gray suits trying to be funny.
O: Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?
EP: It's bad. In a way, I think they should leave it to the professionals. But they push the envelope. It moves in cycles. People always think there's a continuous progression of being more and more liberal, but it's not true. If you look at the Georgians, for instance, around 1780 or 1770, they were very bawdy, and the women had their big breasts almost hanging out of their dresses. And then the Victorians said, "Enough of this garbage; we're going to use our brains rather than our bowels to get laughs." The Victorians had this gigantic cleansing, so it works in cycles. But it's very weird, because with a lot of the stuff that I just barely got away with 20 years ago, now Xerox gets away with it, and Business Week. It's very interesting in that respect. So I'm trying to become more clever and witty, because they can't copy that.
O: You can't always be grosser than the next person.
EP: It's a losing battle. Like, one disc jockey says, "My head was up a horse's butt." And the other: "Oh, my horse is up a rhino's butt." You can keep going forever like that.
O: We did an interview with John Waters where he said that he's not participating in the battle of filth anymore, because he won. He's retired now.
EP: I'm trying to be… I call myself, like the pre-Raphaelites, a pre-Kinisonite. I'm just trying to do super-clean material that's very, very witty and clever, with nothing dirty or bawdy or shocking.
O: Except for the gynecologist jokes, right?
EP: Well, that's part of life.