"Emo Philips Does Downers Grove"

Stephen Saban


I like to shop in downtown Downers Grove
It doesn't take big bucks, and everyone there really is nice

I went into the bakery just the other day
I said to the girl, "Do you have a zwieback?"
She said, "I always slouch this way"

I went into the pet shop, said, "I want a parrot"
The guy said, "How 'bout a cockatoo?"
I said, "No thanks, just the bird"

I went into the clothing store and I made up my mind
I wasn't going to let any pushy salesman
pressure me into buying 
something I didn't need...

So after I bought the kilts
I went to the hardware shop
I said, "This riding lawnmower's stupid"
They said, "Next time, you get on top"

I went to the gas station, said, "Fill 'er up, Harry"
The guy said "Regular?"
I said, "No, put on a gorilla suit and dance like a fairy"

I went into Gus's Artificial Organ and Taco Stand
Said, "Give me a bladder, por favor"
The guy said, "Is that to go?"
I said, "Well, what else would I want it for?"

I was walking down the street  
something caught my eye
and dragged it fifteen feet

That's why I like to shop
in downtown Downers Grove!

-Lyrics by Emo Philips, courtesy of Emotoons Sounds (BMI) 1985


       Emo Philips has made Downers Grove pretty famous with that song, the song he claims won him fifth prize honorable mention in the Downers Grove Chamber of Commerce song contest. He has sung it in his club act and on his epic album E=MO2 (recorded at Caroline's), and the music is used in his Cinemax Comedy Experiment television special. 

       So where better to interview him than in his hometown in Illinois, while shopping at the best-known stores in comedy?

       Emo was quite honored when he was told of my plan to fly into Chicago with photographer Wolfgang Wesener to spend the day with him. He said he'd meet us in Chicago, pick us up at the hotel, take us to Downers Grove, then drive us to the airport.

       Now I was honored. 

       Emo Philips is one of the most unusual - if not funniest - comics to come along in years. His hair, his clothes, his spastic contortions, his mock-innocent blank stare, his painful thinness.... He looks like a Cabbage Patch doll that got stretched during an ownership battle. Which is apt, given his preoccupation with cole slaw. But he's funny, brilliant, quick and - as he'll be the first to tell you - "quite handy with the ladies."

       You know.


       At 12:30 PM, the phone rang in my Chicago hotel room. It was Emo, calling from the lobby, ready to take Wolfgang and me on the excursion to Downers Grove, forty-five minutes or so by train outside the city. "How will I recognize you?" I asked, attempting humor. "I'll be the one with my head," Emo said, succeeding.

       Downstairs, Emo's head - which featured an uncharacteristic beard stubble - was perched atop his trademark fashion statement: T-shirt; old waistcoat; trousers pulled up and belted at least six inches above the navel, a pajama leg sticking out a few inches from the cuff; an independent black, zip-out coat lining; a gray tweed overcoat; sneakers; and blue, three-quarter-length thermal mittens ideal for Arctic exploration.

       Emo assured us that the walk to the train station was only about five minutes. Then five more minutes. Then only five more minutes. Emo's shoelaces were completely untied; a hazard that concerned me more than it did him. Almost a half-hour later, we arrived at the station, ran down the escalator, onto the platform and into the car. We found three seats, and as the train pulled out of the station a young man who recognized Emo when we boarded came up to us and asked Emo for his autograph. Emo wrote, "Thank you for the exploding suppositories." Cold and tired from the walk across Chicago, I asked Emo not to talk to me (or be funny, really) until we got to Downers Grove. He obliged.

       "Are you hungry?" Emo asked after the train pulled out of the Downers Grove station. "Do you like pizza? My treat." 

       We crossed the tracks and headed for a pizza restaurant on the other side. "When I was a little kid," he said, "I used to put pennies on the tracks."

       "So did I," I said, "but they always vibrated off before the train could flatten them."

       "I know. That's why I kept mine in my loafers."

       It was to be the beginning of my day as Emo's straight man.

       In Edwardo's Natural Pizza Restaurant on Main Street, we sat in a booth with a view of the tracks. Emo ordered us a whole-wheat pie with spinach and anchovies. "Half anchovy, half woman," he told the waitress, however.

       Emo got up, took a bar of transparent soap and a razor out of his bag and disappeared. He returned clean-shaven, and put the razor back in his bag, the soap on a paper napkin to dry. Then he reached into his bag again and pulled out a yellow T-shirt. "I'm gonna put this nice shirt on. I feel kinda slobby in this one. I'll be right back." And he was gone again.

       "Do you have someone who coordinates your wardrobe?" I asked when he came back.

       "No.  I get all my clothes from dead relatives," he said, "and I'm sure that's where they got their clothes, from other dead relatives. I figure, why shop when there's always someone kicking off? You know?"

       Just then, two guys who had been sitting at another booth with their girlfriends approached us. "Excuse me," one of them said. "My name is Mark and this is Steve, my roommate. We noticed who you were when you came in and we were, like, really surprised. I was wondering if I could have your autograph."

       "I'd be honored," Emo said. 

       "And one of my friends is a super fan...."

       "I'd be very happy. He's in the hospital or something?"

       "No, but he'll freak when I give him your autograph, he'll die." 

       "Just make sure he's in a jacket first," Emo said. The super fan's name was Brian, so Emo wrote, "If you transposed your vowels, you'd be a brain."  To Mark he wrote,  "Thanks for being my only friend."   He wrote the same thing for Mark's roommate, Steve.  A mischievous touch.

       "Oh, this is awesome," Mark said.

       "Awesome," Steve agreed.  "Nice meeting you." 

       "Mark and Brian," Emo said.  "Steve, Dave, whatever.  Take care.  Thanks for coming up. Next time bring the girls, and you stay there.

       "Everywhere I go...," Emo said to us. "A prophet is with honor in his own city, as I've always said."


Stephen: [Pizza arrives] I'm starting.

Emo: Mmmm. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Mmmmm. Can't wait till I eat it. 

Stephen: Most of your fans seem to be college guys.

Emo: Yeah. I very rarely get eighty-year-old Polish women - although that is the market I'd like to reach. It's mostly disenfranchised prepubescents. Mmmm. Mmmm

Stephen: No girls have approached you.

Emo: Well, you know, I'm sure Mark's and Steve's girlfriends will be back here by themselves. They'll probably say, "Oh dear, I seem to have forgotten my portable sump pump." And they'll come back and say, "Emo Emo Emo, we want your body." So I'll chop off my head and lend it to them. I'm quite handy with the ladies. Mmmm. They'll be back. Maybe not today. Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. It doesn't get any better than this. 

Stephen: Do you actually live in Downers Grove?

Emo: Well, I'm not at home as much as I'd like to be. I'd like never to be home. But I'm home about once every two months, three months. I drop off my laundry, take a shower.

Stephen: Who lives at home?

Emo: My family. The whole Emo clan.

Stephen: They all live in the same house?

Emo: They all live in the same house, except some don't. My sister lives in a suburb of here, a suburb of Downers Grove. A very small town. My family's very nice. We came here after the Diaspora. My parents didn't want me to grow up in this city because there's a lot of rough influences. Actually, I did have my own street gang. You know. The Insane White Eunuchs and Connie Francis Impersonators. Once we were walking down the street and there was this little patrol boy and he told us to stop, so we just laughed and ran across the street! Little sissy. He only caught like six of us! So we were pretty tough. We'd go in stores and hang around until they asked us to leave. We terrorized the whole neighborhood. You know. And this was back when people didn't know as much about microbes as they do today.

Stephen: But you were born in Chicago, right?

Emo: Born in Chicago, and then I came to Downers Grove at an early age, and I've stayed here. You know the irony? For the first twenty years of my life my parents never went anywhere, we never traveled at all. We never took one vacation. And now I'm never home. I'm in a different hotel room every night. Like my sister.

Stephen: How old are you?

Emo: Twenty-nine. And I'll be twenty-eight a year ago.

Stephen: Let me get the actual questions out of the way. How long have you been doing comedy?

Emo: I started in June of '76, so about nine and a half years. Although it seems like a decade.

Stephen: How did it start? How did it come about?

Emo: A little defunct bar in Chicago....I had three minutes of material, and maybe one thing got a laugh in the three minutes, so I kept that thing. The next night, I had the one thing that got a laugh, plus I had two more minutes, so then I had two things. I kept doing it for six months until I had twenty minutes. Then I fell down the stairs and forgot everything. So the next night I had one funny thing - the bump on my head. I kept doing this. That's how I got where I am. Trial and error.

Stephen: How did you come about the thing you do onstage?

Emo: The Benjamin Disraeli impersonation? It was an accident. I was improv-ing one night and someone called out, "Why don't you do a prime minister from nineteenth-century England!" I said okay, and that's how it was born.

Stephen: Seriously. You speak in that slow....

Emo: I speak slower onstage because there are more people. See, my act is like a tour bus, and after every joke I have to make sure that everyone gets on it again. You know. I say a joke and then wait for the woman with the babushka who was at the souvenir stand. She has to be on the bus, we're going to the falls next.

Stephen: How far is downtown from here?

Emo: We're in it. This is it: downtown Downers Grove.

Stephen: I want to leave here, go out and have more people recognize you.

Emo: Okay.

Waitress: [Approaching the table] Listen, I hope you take some good memories back of Edwardo's pizza.

Emo: Well, we'll take more than memories. Bye bye. Thank you, you're very kind. [To us] She's a hot mama. I didn't know we had one in Downers Grove. Where's my doggie bag? Sometimes they take a Chihuahua and scoop him out. That's a bit too literal for me, though.
 [To waitress] Did we get a free doggie bag? Oh. Thank you.


     As we left the restaurant, I was still laughing about the scooped-out Chihuahua. We crossed the street and the tracks again, heading along Main Street toward the shops of the song. There was a lot of traffic. Downers Grove seemed like the kind of community people drive through on their way to somewhere else. After a few minutes, we arrived at the bakery.

Kim and Dawn at the bakery pose with Emo for True Confessions magazine 

       "You have to ask for a zwieback," I said.

       "Okay," Emo said. "Let's try the experiment."

       The bakery smelled delicious. Several shopgirls in white aprons were assisting customers with bread, cakes and cookies. Emo went up to the counter and said, "This man is with True Confessions magazine. Can he take a few pictures of you for our Child Molestation issue?" Some of the girls shrieked, then hid behind the pastry display case, giggling. "What's wrong?" Emo asked with mock concern. "This is Wolfgang von Schmidt He's the one who photographed Eva Braun." Then: "Do you have a zwieback?"

A shopgirl surfaced. "A what?"

       "Do you have a zwieback?"

       "I have no idea what you are talking about."

       Suddenly all the salesgirls disappeared into a back room, leaving the few remaining customers unhelped. "It's all right, don't worry," Emo called to them. "Don't call the police." He picked up a lidless box of cookies and sniffed them, stuck his tongue close to their sprinkle decorations. "Miss, come here." There was no response. "Uh oh, we're in trouble. I'll buy something. Oops, they're gonna get the police now. We're in trouble. We better get outta here."

       We went outside to the street again. "Gwww. Like all small towns," Emo said, "the people here are very friendly, but they have to know you for a couple of years before they trust you."

       I wanted to try another store. Wolfgang suggested the hardware store.

       "I think it's this way. We missed it."

        As we passed by the bakery again, an older female customer opened the door and motioned for us to come in.

       "It might be a trap, Emo," I said.

       "These fellas told these gals who you were," the woman explained to Emo, pointing to two young men in the bakery. We went back into the shop.

       "Is this for real?" one of the salegirls said, her composure decidedly returned.

       "Hi," Emo said to the shop. "Can I get one of you to choke me? I'll give you a dollar."

       "What are you doing here?" the woman asked. "Were you born and raised here?"

       "I was raised here," Emo said, never one to let a stray homonym pass unnoticed. "They gave me yeast. I'd like a picture of us together."

       "What's this picture for?" a shopgirl wanted to know.

       "You know that thing the Moonies pass out?"

       Everyone in the store began to realize that Emo wouldn't stop - and they were enjoying it. The girls came around to our side of the counter to be photographed. Except for an elderly salesgirl who could not be coerced by her fellow workers, no matter how they pleaded.

       "No," she said. "Just the young girls."

       "You're only as old as your problems going to the bathroom in the morning," Emo told her. The other girls laughed, and Wolfgang took photos.

       "This is incredible," said a shopgirl during the merriment.

       "Isn't this amazing?" Emo said. "The whole town comes to life."

       "You see that?" the older shopper said. "Hey how 'bout an autograph for me?"

       "I'd be honored. Who do I make it out to?"

       "Make it to Estelle." Estelle produced some paper and a pen. 

       "Estelle," Emo wrote, "I want your cole slaw. Emo."  Then, "Okay, who else?" 


       "Kim, Thanks for turning me from a boy to a man...with just one slap. Emo. Who else?"


       "Dear Dawn, I want your tender teeth near my head. Emo. Okay. Bye bye, Dawn. Thank you Kim and Estelle."


       Back out on Main Street, a man lurking outside the bakery stopped Emo. "You ever play down at the First Congregational Church there?"

       "No, but I will someday," Emo said pleasantly. "Thank you."

       The hardware store - Mochels True Value Hardware - was only a few shops away from the bakery. Emo went in first to ask permission, then called us in. There were no riding lawnmowers. "They must have got rid of them," Emo said. So he chose to shop for toilet seats. While Wolfgang was photographing, a salesperson walked by. "Just taking some toilet photos for the next catalog," Emo explained.

       As we left, Emo thanked the management. "You'll be mentioned in a very hip magazine in New York and people will come here."

Bowled over at the hardware store

       It was getting colder outside.We walked up the block and crossed over to the other side of the street, where we spotted a clothing store. Inside, we found the merchandise to be very small. It was a boys' shop. The saleslady said she was German originally. We made her prove it by conversing with Wolfgang for a few sentences. We asked her if we could photograph, and she went into the office to ask her boss. She came back in moments with another woman who assured us it was all right.

       "Why don't you take this tape measure and try to measure my neck and start to choke me at the same time," Emo said. "Okay? Real tight." Miraculously, the boss did.

       "His name is Emo," the saleslady said. "Want a pair of jeans, Emo?"

       "No, this is fine," Emo said, holding up the tiniest of tiny suits to himself to see if it would fit.

       "What did I tell you?" the saleslady said to her boss. "Strange! I told you there were some strange people here from New York." She looked at Emo again. "Emo, you've got your pajamas on under your trousers," she scolded.

       "It's cold," Emo said.

       "Oh please!" she said. "It's not that cold just yet!"

       "I have a very very very dear friend in New York," the boss said. "She's studying to be an actress."

       "That narrows it down," Emo said.

       "Emo, where do you live in Downers Grove?" the saleslady asked.

       "Not far from here," he said. "It's nice. You'd recognize my house right away."

       "It's you, right?" said the boss. "Has it got pajamas hanging in the yard?"

       "Yeah. It's the one with Tip O'Neill burned in effigy at the corner."

       "Has it got a gargoyle guarding it?"

       "We gargoyle with Scope twice a day," Emo said. He's so quick it's scary.

       "I told you," the saleslady said. "I told you strange."

       "Well, thank you very much," Emo said, ready to leave. "Continued success and I hope you never have any returns."

       "Bye bye, " the boss said. "Have a safe trip back to New York."

       "Isn't this a friendly town?" Emo said as we hit the pavement again.

       We arrived at where the pet shop was supposed to be. It was now a gift shop. "Oh, don't tell me they took the pet shop away," Emo puled. "There was a pet shop right here! Oh my gosh, I feel like such an old man, like Rip Van Winkle. Nothing is the same. The King George Tavern is ripped down and now it's the Uncle Sam Inn."

The substitute pet shop

       We were at the gas station, and a very strange one it was. No brand name, no Exxon or Merit, nothing. Generic. We went to the office and met with a swarthy man behind the counter. "Do you speak German?" Emo asked.

       The man was Mexican. "That doesn't matter," Emo said. "We're all brothers under the sun. I've just been out in it longer than others."

       "Praise God," the Mexican said.

       A small dark woman who had been talking on the pay phone approached us. "Yeah, Can I ask?" she asked.

       We told her, she refused us. We left the gas station defeated. 

       "I don't want this as a slur to the whole immigrant community at large," Emo said. "Many of them are very hard-working and will let you photograph them at will. Many people still believe that if you take their photo, you take away part of their soul. Hanging around with celebrities for the last year, I know there's some truth to that."

       "They must have been illegal aliens," I said.

       "That's all it was. Why be prejudiced against people because of their race or nationality or religion, when there are so many real reasons to hate others."

       It was getting dark. Since the pet shop no longer existed, we stopped in front of a gift shop that had stuffed dogs in the window. It would have to substitute. Emo took a piece of cold pizza from his doggie bag and pretended to feed a toy dog through the window.

       We found a Mobil gas station on the next corner (although Emo said it was stationary) and photographed Emo at the pumps. "Well, we've covered the downtown Downers Grove area, " he said. "Would you like to see my house?"

       So we turned and walked along Main Street again, in the opposite direction. I was beginning to recognize the shops, the people. "You could be here twenty minutes and not see all of it," Emo said.

The stationary Mobil station

       We passed the bakery again and everyone inside waved to us. "If I lived here," I said, "I'd eat more pastry just to go into the bakery."

       "You know," Emo said, "those little hot mamas have led many a man to the quick coronary."

       At the next intersection, Emo said we could cross diagonally. I was a bit intimidated. It was a busy intersection. "A diagonal crossing?" I said. "Is that legal in Downers Grove?"

       "It's one of the things we do here for fun. It is the thing we do here for fun." 

       I looked down and noticed that there were traces of diagonal markings for pedestrians to cross. When the lights changed we ran across. Emo said that the lights allotted three seconds to make it.

       "Wanna see my church? We'll walk by it if you like."


Stephen: It would be nice if they were serving a covered-dish supper right now. 

Emo: They might be having a Bible drill tonight. I did really good in my first Bible drill, except I guess the bit was too short - it only went into Isaiah. It didn't go all the way through. We just got a new minister. He's a very good speaker. Very good guy. I have no further comment.

Stephen: That was interesting. Is there an Oriental community in Downers Grove?

Emo: We had one but the laundry closed.

       [We turn off Main Street and head into a more residential section]

Stephen: Is that your church?

Emo: Yes. Isn't it nice?

Stephen: It looks like a temple. Not in the Jewish sense, but in the Greek sense.

Emo: Oh, thank you. It's Ionic that you say that. 

       [I read the information in the glass case outside the church]

Stephen: Hamilton Sinclair. Is he the new guy?

Emo: He's the old guy.

Stephen: What about Don Zimmerman?

Emo: He's the new guy.

Stephen: I don't want to say anything, but isn't the name Zimmerman of a different persuasion?

Emo: Well no, he's.... You know, I could take that up with the board of deacons. You're right that could be a big scandal. I saw this guy at the circus biting the heads off of chickens, you know. And he had a yarmulke on. I said, "Are you Jewish?" He said, "No, geek orthodox." Straight ahead for blocks, we'll be home. Isn't this nice, this little cobblestone sidewalk?

Stephen: Have we gone four blocks yet? It seems like one continuous block.

Emo: Here's my house.


       Emo's house was on the corner of something and something - it was too dark to tell. He pointed to a leafless bush in the yard. "I see my brother's been playing with his napalm again." We stepped up to a door at the side of the house. Emo used his keys to open it. He let me in first. I stepped into a room that was an obvious addition to the house - a long, plain box of no distinction. It had a table and chairs, a black vinyl upholstered lounge chair, and a long, sheet-covered couch. Emo's mother came into the kitchen door and saw me in her house.

       "Ohhhh!" she exclaimed, and laughed. She's a pleasant, heavyset woman and was wearing a housedress. She looked like a mom.

       "He's here," I said to her.

       "Who?" she said. Then Wolfgang came in and said hello. Mom said hi, but was becoming perceptibly uncertain.

       "Who are we, right?" I said as Emo came in and closed the door. 

       "Okay!" she said, relieved. "All righty, Okay!"

       "See how quickly she reacts to intruders?" Emo asked.

       "It was my birthday last week," Mom said, "and I thought, well maybe it's these entertainers who are coming in and doing something for my birthday. Hi." She went back into the kitchen, and we sat down. Emo offered us soft drinks.

"I'm a native of Downers Grove, I had the bone removed from my nose."

Emo: Sometimes I lie in bed and wonder, what would life be like? Life is like a bowl of cole slaw. The cabbage pieces are the people you meet, and the mayonnaise is the love that holds us together. And I am the mouse's head at the bottom of the bowl.

Stephen: No you're not.

Emo: Well, I flatter myself, of course. Do you like cole slaw? I never asked you?

Stephen: Yes. Wolfgang and I had cole slaw last night.

Emo: Isn't it good?

Stephen: I'll say. Emo, would you rather be rich or famous, if you couldn't be both?

Emo: Well you can't be famous without being rich unless you're an assassin. Like Hinckley. But you can be rich and not famous. But I've never worried about fame or fortune or power or wealth. You know? As long as I just have the simple things in life, you know. Like sitting in front of the fireplace with a copy of War and Peace. You know, a book like that will feed a fire for half an hour. You see my parent raised me by the good book - although I've yet to find that verse about the electric nipple clamps. It may be in Deuteronomy somewhere. They raised me with the three magic words: total sensory deprivation. After that, everything is a picnic. After spending six years of your life in the cellar, everything seems like an adventure.

Stephen: What do your parents think of this image you've created of them? I've seen Mom and I don't think she used electric nipple clamps on you. 

Emo: That was my father. She used the gas-powered ones. She didn't cotton to those newfangled electric ones they came out with. My parents like what I am doing. At first they were kind of upset. They thought I was gonna go to an early grave, hang around with a lot of loose women and gamblers. But as soon as I laid that first fifty-dollar paycheck on the table, they came around. They said, "Wow, if he can make that much in just one month...!"

Stephen: People don't usually heckle you, do they?

Emo: No, they don't. I've been very fortunate. I think that people sense that I carry a gun on me. And they respect me. But I don't mind hecklers too much, because it takes my mind off the show.

Stephen: How much new stuff do you write?

Emo: About half of it. It depends. Writing comedy is like having a chest cold: Somedays you'll be trying with everything to get it up and it doesn't work, and then one night you'll be at a party talking to a girl and suddenly a whole bucket will come up. That's how it is. But I figure it's every comedian's dream to get to the point where he doesn't have to be funny. Ask me something else, Uncle Stephen.

Stephen: Uncle Stephen can't think of anything. If you died now, I'd still have a good story.

Emo: If I died now, you'd have a better story. You'd have an ending. The Last Day of Emo on Earth.

Stephen: And your last words...

Emo: My last words: "Steve, this tastes funny."

Stephen: When was the last time you were here?

Emo: In this house? Oh, about two months ago. 

Stephen: And before that?

Emo: Two months.

Stephen: And before that?

Emo: Well, the easy reply would be two months.

Stephen: And before that? I want to take you back to before you were born. What's your earliest memory?

Emo: I think it's when I met you at the hotel today. [Opens a pack of gum and chews a large amount at once and with gusto] Mmmmmm. Let's keep chatting. I like it when we just chat. My mind is like a steel trap -- I think there's a dead squirrel rotting inside, though.