"The clarion call of show business has been a seductive one," Emo Philips says. "The siren has led me to the rocks of disaster."
Every comedian should have it so hard.
Actually, Emo (he prefers to be called by his first name, and besides who can resist it?) is doing just fine. In fact, better than fine. Thanks to a number of appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman," a popular comedy album and a recent Cinemax cable special, 30-year-old Emo is even becoming something of a celebrity in his suburban home town, Downers Grove, Ill.
"Now, when I walk down the streets people are always saying, Emo! Emo!" says Emo. "When they catch up to me they hand me a subpoena."
The neighbors weren't always so cordial, Emo remembers. For starters, there was his name; a fine Finnish name, but an easy target for nasty kids just the same. To make matters worse, Emo suffered from asthma. He likens the experience to "having someone's laundry in your lungs."
What's more, Emo began to develop a sense of fashion that wasn't quite the norm in Downers Grove -- or anywhere else for that matter. These days the wiry, wide-eyed comedian, who appears at the Roxy tomorrow, favors a rough-hewn Prince Valiant haircut, laceless shoes and "slinky form-fitting clothes that arouse the prurient interest of the women in my audience." (Emo says those women occasionally throw undergarments on stage, "but they seldom if ever fit.")
And then there was -- and is -- his voice. It flutters and wobbles and wheezes all the time, as if the variable pitch control were continually on the fritz.
No, life wasn't easy for young Emo. Even his mother had grave reservations when he stepped on a comedy stage for the first time 10 years ago "eager to expose my raw nerves to the lacerating barbs of the crowd."
"My mom was a bit uptight about it," Emo recalls, "but, I'll tell you. After six years in the business, when I slapped that first $25 paycheck on the kitchen table, she came around."
Perhaps it was then that Emo's mother realized that her only son had done the right thing dropping out of the University of Illinois after just one semester. Emo concedes he attended college only to see if he could learn something about hypnotism in his psychology class. He figured it might help him out on dates. Instead, he discovered his psychology course was devoted to more mundane matters, "like seeing how many rats you have to put in a box before they start acting like Chicago politicians."
So Emo left college to pursue comedy, and nearly a decade later got his big break on the Letterman show. But the break came only after Emo auditioned for the show's producers 10 times. If the decision were left entirely to Letterman, who seems a tad put off by Emo, it might have taken even longer.
"Oh, yes. We have a little good-natured feud going," Emo says of his chilly rapport with the host. "Like I'll tell some joke about Indiana Letterman's home state and he'll get back at me by doing cute little things like cutting off my microphone during my set -- like Mayor Daley would do." In truth, Emo thinks Letterman is very bright and funny and says "Late Night" is the best thing on TV. He hopes to return to the show late next month, but the date isn't firm.
"They have to be careful," he explains, noting that it's not unusual to get bumped from the show. "They may get a chance to have someone like Everett McKinley Dirksen's tailor on."
When Emo isn't traveling "48, maybe 50 or 60 weeks out of the year," he often returns to Downers Grove to rest at his mother's home. "It's nice and peaceful," he says, "what with the constant rhythms of the bricks crashing through the picture window at regular intervals."
Perhaps he'll even retire there some day. "Well" -- he sighs, giving the notion some thought -- "it would make my life seem longer, so there is an advantage to that."
Retirement is a long way off, though. Hollywood is on the phone. A major studio has asked Emo to develop a story line. Already, he's thinking along the lines of a biblical epic. What will come of his plan, if anything, remains to be seen. But Emo would be happy -- no, make that thrilled -- if a movie of his came within hailing distance of the greatness of his favorite film actor -- Don Knotts.
"He was wonderful in 'The Reluctant Astronaut,' " Emo swoons.
As for whether he can handle the day-to-day demands of filmmaking, Emo is uncertain of that as well. But there's no denying he has a firm grasp of the fundamentals. "I'll write it," he says, "and you'll attend it."