Sunday, February 21, 2016

Emo and Me

I turned eighteen in September of 1972. It was a pivotal time in my life, wedged between the deaths of my parents and the onset of my twenties. It was the year I walked into a voting booth for the first time, confronted by the choice between Nixon and McGovern. I registered for the Selective Service and promptly drew position 99 in the final draft lottery for the waning Vietnam conflict. The Eagles hit the charts with Take It Easy, still my favorite song, and by the next year beer and wine became a legal option in Illinois for nineteen year olds, just in time for my generation. It was also the year I became a staff writer for The Illini, the school newspaper at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There was no test or interview for a position as staff writer. Showing up for an orientation meeting and the desire to write were sufficient qualifications. If you were any good, the editor continued to assign you stories to research and write. Phil and I were good. Phil Soltanek that is. But more about him later. We were issued press passes and sent out to cover exciting college news of the day.

It’s hard to describe how a press pass instantly changes you. Consider it a badge of courage. It legitimizes your identity as a journalist and opens doors that some people might prefer remained closed. I once interviewed the college chancellor in his ivory tower, accessible only by an elevator that had two stops – 1 and 23. I spoke with the chief of police to discuss security after an assault on campus. Other stories were less dramatic, but I recall the thrill of passing by a student who was reading a copy of the latest newspaper, opened to a story. My story.

As a staff writer, my first news analysis was on the potentially cruel effects of a product called “Roost No More” being used to dissuade a rather large campus pigeon population from perching on the granite two-level sidewalk spanning the school. There were all kinds of nooks and crannies, sheltered places where birds sought escape from the weather while pooping on the students passing below. Roost No More was applied to surfaces with the intention of giving birds a chemical hot foot. It burned their feet. Sometimes they flew away, but mostly it just got messy.

I did a solid job of interviewing University officials responsible for the controversial decision to address the problem by chemical means at a time when Agent Orange was in the news. I talked to the company that created the product, watched the pigeons land in, and ignore, the painful sensation on their feet, and I even stuck my hand in the gooey stuff to see how it felt. Nothing.

The story ran alongside a piece about Jane Fonda visiting the campus in November, months after winning an Academy Award that made some of us forget about Barbarella. Her speech to the students was about her controversial visit to North Vietnam and her “campaign for peace.” I remember the hisses and boos that interrupted her talk, Hanoi Jane.

Phil and I talked for a while at staff meetings, then went our separate ways. Such is the life of a college reporter. And such is the way of college life as well, for I lost track of Phil some time before graduation. Frankly, he wasn’t someone I felt could be a friend. He was clearly very smart, always talking, and not making sense much of the time. He was full of jokes, turning ironic phrases or employing multi-layered metaphors that came off as truly weird. I later came to realize that he was trying out material.

Yes, Phil was funny. Annoyingly so. He just couldn’t seem to turn it off. A serious or casual conversation was impossible, and although he listened with an intensity I’ve rarely witnessed since, it was as if he was studying, not hearing. I never felt I got to know Phil as Phil. He was just a machine gun of comedic one-liners in the body of a guy who was of a demographic similar to my own – tall, thin white guys with brown hair. And that’s why it took me by surprise when I read his stories in the Illini. They were eloquent, serious and of a very different voice than the one I had come to know. Man, could he write!

Several years later, I walked into the Maroon Racoon Comedy Cottage in Rosemont Illinois with two friends. We were late to the show, and although we entered quietly, we got the attention of the comic on stage.

“So did you hear the one about the three gay guys who walked into a bar?” quipped the young man at the microphone.

We sheepishly took our seats in the darkened venue and ordered drinks.

As I relaxed into the performance and looked closer at the guy on stage, I had an epiphany. Phil! He was doing standup!

Phil was very funny. He seemed comfortable inside his comic skin, very natural on stage and as with most comedians, testing new material. But this time it was on a roomful of people, not just the guy in the folding chair next to him at a staff meeting.

Decades later, during lunch with coworkers, the conversation paged through random life topics, eventually resulting in my casual comment that I wondered if the comedian Emo Philips might be my old acquaintance from college.

“Well, that’s what Google is for, right?” commented someone at the lunch table.

And in fact, after a brief search I discovered that Phil is indeed Emo. He went on to have a successful career as a comedian, writer, producer and voiceover talent. But most notable was the strange looking, squeaky-voiced persona he developed along the way. His rebirth as Emo Philips was more than just a stage act. He transformed entirely. He never stepped out of character, and his personality reassignment was so complete that when I reached out to him on MySpace about the old days, he simply responded,

“Let the dead bury their dead.”
The Conversion is Complete - Phil as Emo

So Phil is gone forever. And that’s ok. In the list of memorable people I’ve met in my life, he has a place, just not very high on the list or in a club I cared to join.  I can’t understand what might happen to someone to make him morph completely into another identity. Perhaps a desire to lock away all traces of a previous self in an unlit room? A room with a door no press pass can penetrate?

They say that many comedians turn to laughter to mask their inner pain. Maybe Emo served as a comic skin that shielded Phil’s in side from his out. Some might turn to drink or drugs, but comedy can also be a potent medication, as we learned most recently in the example of Robin Williams. And the payoff to audiences is a lasting legacy, a trail of laughter from people who never knew Phil as other than Emo, the clown-like jokester with the Prince Valiant haircut. He practiced and mastered jokes that occasionally took on a life of their own, like his joke voted best religious joke ever.

It goes like this:

“Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

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