A comedy legend graced the stage—and gracedreally is the right word, given his outfit—at Palm Beach Improv last night, but you wouldn’t have known it from the turnout.
Emo Philips, modern maestro of cerebral standup, emerged for his first South Florida headlining set since the ‘90s donning a three-piece suit in black and what appeared to be imitation gold lamé, as if he were the resident entertainer on an androgynous “Star Trek” reboot. An unbuckled belt dangled from his pants, and he stared at spectators slack-jawed and arms raised as if awkwardly embracing us all from the stage, basking in the warm reception from an audience that appeared to be less than half full.
The attendees constituted, by and large, an older crowd, a smart crowd, a liberal crowd, a gathering of alt-comedy enthusiasts who appreciate eccentricity with an edge. Because that’s what Philips brought during a freewheeling 75-minute set that ran counter to the calculated polish of many a comic’s flow. If there was a blueprint for the evening, Philips seemed to have jettisoned it early on, allowing for at least the illusion of extemporaneity. One joke free-associated to another; he managed some gently cutting crowd work with fans at the front tables, weaving it in and out of his written material. He even brought one audience member onstage, after learning that this amiable young man “didn’t get” some of Philips’ highbrow riffs, resulting in an impromptu master class in joke construction and delivery that was among the evening’s highlights.
Indeed, this was demonstrably a set that nobody else in the country will see. Philips mentioned that a Palm Beach Postwriter had emailed him questions for an interview that appears to never have run; instead of sending his answers back to the writer, Philips proceeded to sporadically cycle through them during the show. One of them: What do you think about Rick Scott?Philips: “His word is gospel; there’s four different versions of it.”
There were more such provocations to come. Part of Emo’s disarming genius is the contrast between wholesome, Catskillian one-liners about dogs and knee replacements and coleslaw and his barbed riffs on Scientology, Mormonism, politics and pedophilia. One minute, he’s musing existentially about root vegetables and seagulls; the next, he’s delivering the most withering Woody Allen joke I’ve ever heard, with a roastmaster’s brutal tactlessness.
That delivery, of course, is a fixture of Philips’ persona, as singular as Gilbert Gottfried’s or Andy Kaufman’s. Bolstered by a silent-film star’s expressive gestures, Philips’ undulating falsetto, unchanged since his late-‘80s heyday, carried each joke from its established beginning toward its deconstructed conclusion. It forced everyone to lean in and absorb every important word—anticipating the single phrase, word or even comma that turned the story on its head.
Audience and performer couldn’t have been more simpatico, more tuned in to the same weird wavelength. Dropping the persona toward the end of his set, Philips confessed, “I could stay up here forever.” If only: The few, proud Emo fans who attended would be right there with him.