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A life in character

Emo Philips and the art of the turn

The legend Emo Philips arrives this week at the Tacoma Comedy Club for Friday shows like no other. Photo credit: Guy Viau

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Visitors to legendary comic Emo Philips' Wikipedia page learn in its first sentence that Philips is a master of the paraprosdokian. That was a new one on us, too. A paraprosdokian, from the Greek for "counter to expectations," is a witty remark in which the last phrase is a surprise after the rest of the sentence. The Wikipedia page for "paraprosdokian" cites an old Philips joke, less funny now: "I like going to the park and watching the children run around because they don't know I'm using blanks." This example aged better: "So I'm at the Wailing Wall, standing there like a moron, with my harpoon ..." His material is all about the unexpected turn.

If you lived through the comedy boom of the mid-1980s, you likely read those jokes in Philips' signature singsong. His albums from that period, E = mo2 and Live at the Hasty Pudding Theatre, were award-winning hits. He's been selected for two different lists of the hundred greatest comedians ever, and is familiar to insomniac audiences from numerous appearances on Comedy Central's @midnight. He was born Phil Soltanek in Downers Grove, Chicago, but no one seems to know much about Phil Soltanek. "Emo Philips" does press interviews and public appearances in character, meaning he wears childlike, mismatched ensembles, retains a pageboy haircut and speaks in bewildered falsetto. (He implies his overpronounced stage voice stems from childhood speech therapy.) He's been known to do Q&As with audiences after performances, but uses each biographical question as a setup for a joke.

Here's what we do know, thanks to an interview with Sean L. McCarthy of Philips did 1,000 shows in 1976 and '77, his first two years in standup. "I talk to young comics," he told McCarthy, "who say, ‘Tell me all about the ‘80s, Emo!' as if I were a jazz player in New York City in the 1940s, or a surrealist painter in Paris in the ‘20s. I realize now that I was lucky enough to ply my craft during one of the most astounding decades in comedy history." After a memorable turn in the 1989 comedy UHF, he stayed busy touring and doing voices for such animated series as Home Movies and Adventure Time. ("Cartoons are nice to do," he admitted, "'cause you don't gotta get made up.") He's 60 but doesn't look it.

Schoolyard-shooting jokes aside, there's a timeless quality to Philips' entire persona. Consider this Philips classic, voted one of the 75 best jokes ever by his peers in a 1999 GQ survey: "I got into a fight one time with a really big guy, and he said, ‘I'm going to mop the floor with your face.' I said, ‘You'll be sorry.' He said, ‘Oh, yeah? Why?' I said, ‘Well, you won't be able to get into the corners very well.'"

Of those 75 jokes, three were Philips'.

Emo Philips, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, Tacoma Comedy Club, 933 Market St., Tacoma, $20-$25, 253.282.7203

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