SATURDAY’S CHILD: Emo the merrier
(DEDICATED TO my friend, Derek Jones, who sent me an Emo-textual quip: “I’m not a fatalist; even if I were, what could I do about it?”)
“What’s purple and hums?” An electric grape. “Why does it hum?” It doesn’t know the words. Marshall McLuhan, the author of The Medium Is The Message, used the “grape” one-liners to demonstrate changes brought about by television. He pointed out that increasingly the nature of jokes was changing. The pace of modern life, the characteristics of television itself, did not allow for the long “shaggy dog” style of joke which requires a long “set-up”. The new medium had brought forth a new structure for humour. In today’s world of the “stand-up” comic, it is not even the equivalent of “slam, bam, thank you ma’am”. What you get is “slam” alone in staccato and serial style, one line at a time.
The person I associate most with this style is Emo Phillips. One of my favourite Emo lines is, “I discovered my wife in bed with another man and I was crushed. So I said, ‘Get off me, you two!’” Another is, “A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.” Reminiscing about his youth and his early attempts at entrepreneurship, Phillips said, “At my lemonade stand I used to give the first glass away free and charge five dollars for the second glass. The refill contained the antidote.”
You don’t have to be too sophisticated to discern the weirdness in Emo’s humour – it goes beyond the pale, beyond the purple as well, and hums at a frenetic pace. It is not merely the style that differentiates today’s comedian, or the structure – it is the substance. The need to establish a persona has taken Phillips and other comedian down paths that are not just unbeaten but scary.
Here are some samples of slightly beyond the fringe. “I was walking down Fifth Avenue today and I found a wallet. I was going to keep it rather than return it, but I thought: Well, if I lost $150 how would I feel? And I thought, I would want to be taught a lesson.” A little offbeat you say? Then try this: “Because we allow handguns, when you know someone in the crowd might be packing a rod, it can’t help but rush your timing.” Speaking about one of his mentors, Phillips recounts what he learnt from him, “He taught me never to smile, which helps me when I visit disaster sites.” Then these two: “Some mornings it just doesn’t seem worth it to gnaw through the leather straps” and “How many people here have telekinetic powers? Raise my hand.”
These jokes are a genuine test of whether you understand the changes in the way successive generations look at the world (and the world looks at them). Whatever you may think of them, they succeed because they make people laugh: “I go from stool to stool in singles bars hoping to get lucky, but there’s never any gum under any of them.” “I got some new underwear the other day. Well, new to me.” “I love to go down to the schoolyard and watch all the little children jump up and down and run around yelling and screaming. They don’t know I’m only using blanks.”
Who is this guy, you ask? If you actually do ask and rant about his style of humour, you are definitely not with it – a curmudgeon in a karmic conundrum. Jay Leno describes Emo Phillips to be one of the best joke writers in America. In a poll commissioned by GQ Magazine, three of Emo’s jokes were judged by his peers to be among the top 75 of all time. A performance in London earned him this accolade from the Guardian: “His jokes are more perfectly constructed, and his personality more compelling, than anyone else’s. His comic fusillade is irresistible.” The Independent said: “It’s a relief to discover the straightforward gagman. As a master of one-liners, he’s way ahead of anyone else.” According to The Times, Emo is “Utterly idiosyncratic. Refreshing, cranky and extraordinarily funny”.
But weird – sometimes very weird. “When I was ten, my parents moved to Downers Grove, Illinois. When I was 12, I found them.” “I ran three miles today . . . . Finally I said, ‘Lady, take your purse’.”
This joke is ordinary by Emo’s standards: “I got in 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.” This one will be funny anywhere: Emo Phillips was pulled over in Massachusetts for reckless driving. When brought before the judge, Emo was asked if he knew what the punishment for drunk driving in that state was. His reply: “I don’t know – re-election to the Senate?” This one as well: “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”
Yet, the joke that tops the list of GQ’s 75 best jokes is the true test of whether you’re an emo-philiac or just an anachronism: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well . . . are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” He said, “Baptist!” I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” He said, “Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
• Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Emo Phillips, “My classmates would copulate with anything that moved, but I never saw any reason to limit myself.”