Emo Phillips' early comedy years were not easy ones. ''When I was a kid, I used to always insult people, and they constantly beat me up,'' he recalls in a voice distinguished by adolescent cracks and squeaks. ''A lot of comics use humor as a defense mechanism, but I was never that good. I was funny enough to get myself beaten up, but never funny enough to get out of the beatings. I guess that's why I like the stage. Had I not learned to use it as a safe haven for joke telling, I would still get punched on a regular basis.''
Luckily for 35-year-old Phillips, audiences now find his brand of humor appealing enough to keep him onstage and away from bullies almost every night. Between constant touring and regular appearances alongside David Letterman and Arsenio Hall, he recently found time to film a new comedy special, An American Mammal in London.
Phillips has honed an act that consists largely of short but enthusiastic setups followed by drolly confused punch lines: ''I was in Trafalgar Square today, ripping out nose hairs.'' Pause for a beat and a facial tick. ''Oooh, those sleeping winos hate that.'' Phillips' romantic relationships get similar treatment in this concert taped at London's Playhouse Theatre: ''My girlfriend's mad at me because I told her she looks sexy with black fingernails,'' he says. ''Now she thinks I purposely slammed the car door on her hand.''
Phillips says he sticks to subjects that are closest to his heart: eating, sleeping, fighting. ''I'm attracted to the most basic, primal things,'' he explains. ''That's why I call the new show An American Mammal in London. This may sound stupid, but I try to do things that can be understood by humans as well as animals turtles, porpoises, and apes or something. If there was a comic who could make animals laugh, I'd hope to be him.''