by Ryan Meehan
Henry Phillips has been seen and heard performing his twisted songs and stories on ‘Comedy Central Presents’, ABC’s ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’, as well as satellite and terrestrial radio nationwide. His critically acclaimed comedy albums earned him mention in Billboard magazine’s ‘Critic’s Choice’, as well as acclaim from such notable artists as Moby, who refers to Phillips’ music as “disconcertingly funny”. In more recent years he has focused more on his acting and filmmaking. His semi-biographical cult comedy film “Punching the Clown” received the Audience award at Slamdance Film Festival ’09, and the sequel is expected to be released in 2016. His YouTube channel, featuring the tutorial cooking series “Henry’s Kitchen”, has garnered almost 3 million views while he continues to tour comedy and music venues throughout the US and beyond. His new album “Neither Here Nor There” is available Friday on Rooftop Comedy, and he’s my guest today in 10 questions.
RM: When you moved out West with your father as a child, what was the biggest cultural difference in the way people operated in Los Angeles as opposed to how things were done in a working-class East Coast state like New Jersey?
HP: We were in Englewood, NJ – which was just across the bridge from Manhattan – so I can’t really brag that it’s the New Jersey that Springsteen sings about. When we moved out West at first, I was in heaven – the beach, palm trees, cops that looked like the guys from CHiPs. But after a while I missed the change of seasons, and realized that there was enough East Coast in me to make me a bit of a misfit. But I gradually grew to embrace that.
RM: It seems like you have been on The Bob & Tom Show hundreds of times…When was the first time you appeared on that program; and why do you think your musical comedy lends itself so well to their early morning old-school radio format?
HP: I did the Bob and Tom show in, I think, 2000? It was incredible. My email box was flooded with fan mail and work offers. If I had to pinpoint what I enjoy about the old-school format, I would say it’s the live aspect. It’s exciting to premiere a new song and know that at that very moment, hundreds of thousands of people are listening. I sure hope we never lose that in our new media, because it’s a thrill and it puts more pressure on yourself to do a good job.
RM: Your new special is called “Neither Here Nor There” and it comes out August 15th…Do you approach each new project differently based on how you’ve matured as a writer and performer through the years, or do you typically keep things pretty simple and stick with the formulas that have allowed you the success you’ve already achieved up until this point?
HP: I think as a comedian you can’t help but mature. Not only does your life change, but also you start to see humor in different things. I’m not ashamed of the songs I wrote in my 20’s about my hapless love life, but I’m on to more adult things, like not paying my bills. But what I’m excited about with this special is that it encapsulates the full spectrum of my material, and hopefully there’s no sign of any formula. Except for maybe: Setup + Punchline = Joke.
RM: One of the songs on the new record is called “The End of the World”…If you knew the world was going to end tomorrow morning and you could go all out but not engage in any of the activities you discuss on that track, what would be the first thing you would do and why? Is the concept of the apocalypse something that you think about a great deal, or just something you chose to address on that particular song?
HP: There’s a sick part of me that really kind of wants an apocalypse to happen, maybe because it would be a nice diversion from the mundanity. But that’s selfish, because I’m just a guy with a short attention span. The first thing I would do at the end of the world would be to loot a top of the line acoustic guitar and find some musicians to jam with while the world burns down.
RM: Let’s talk gear for a second…What does your own personal studio at home look like? Do you enjoy the production aspect of the process at all or do you consider it to be tedious and stifling of your creativity?
HP: I absolutely love production. I use Logic Pro X on my Macbook and have a bunch of band and orchestral samples that I’ll use for studio tracks. I seem to have a guitar stolen every five years, so at the moment I’m down to my ’83 Fender Strat and two acoustics, a Guild and a Breedlove. In the studio you get to be a perfectionist, and overdub stuff to your heart’s desire, so it’s really creative that way. It’s also exciting to put the finishing touches on stuff and form the final product that everyone will hear.
RM: Could you ever see yourself making doing a record of music where none of it is comedic and for the most part the subject matter is all what one might consider to be “serious”? If so, what do you think are some of things you’d end up singing about?
HP: I’ve thought about that. I started as a serious musician, and I noticed that my lyrics were all very generic. When I started comedy it opened up a whole world where I could sing about whatever I wanted. And I’ve also noticed that all of my favorite “serious” songs have at least some tinge of humor there, even if it’s a song that’s just so serious that it makes me laugh. If I were to do a so called “legit” song, I guess would be about something grave, like mortality or war or something. But even then, it would be hard not to take the edge off with something silly here and there.
RM: Comedy is known for having a lot of unspoken rules: The rule of three, don’t wear shorts on stage, et cetera, et cetera…Do you have any personal rules that you tend to stick to which keep your act in line with what your fans expect to see in your live shows?
HP: I’d say the first thing is that I try my best. Even if there’s a really light crowd, and even if they seem to hate me, and I want to hate them back. I’ve noticed that when I barrel through and try my best, I feel better afterward. I try not to do material that’s not personal. Even if it’s a one-liner, I try to make it something unique. In terms of the songs, I’ve always had a rule that if you took the music away, would it make a funny stand up bit? If not, I generally wouldn’t want to do it. But of course, all rules get broken every now and then.
RM: How many chances do you typically give a new bit before putting it away, either for a while until it’s worked out better or forever altogether? When you don’t have an audience to test a creative idea on – much in the way of anything you would do as far as web projects – how do you make the decision regarding when to stop wasting energy on something that you believe probably isn’t going to work?
HP: I am one who completely relies on audience feedback. Even the film/video projects I’ve done, previewing them for friends and seeing if they’re laughing is a major part of the process. All of my songs started out as ideas that I would test in front of a community or musicians and comics at parties and open mics. I will say that if I do something over and over again, and it consistently gets absolutely nothing from anyone, I probably will throw it away.
RM: You’re the host of your very own YouTube cooking show “Henry’s Kitchen” in which you awkwardly guide viewers through making some of your favorite dishes…Given the odd presentation and editing style in those videos, are they at all uncomfortable for you to watch? Is that series based more off of your desire to actually do a show about cooking or to indirectly take some pot shots at the professionalism of the YouTube generation?
HP: When I started making those videos I was ecstatic that I had found a new thing in our culture that I could make fun of, other than music. I have always thought failure was funny, and what’s more of an example of failure than a middle aged guy teaching probably no one how to make simple dishes and botching it up?
RM: What do you think you’d be doing at this point in your life if you hadn’t discovered stand-up as an avenue by which to express yourself creatively?
HP: I think music would always be there, no matter what. I would probably be writing songs no one would hear and then looking at it as something that I regretted not pursuing. I almost gave it up completely, but when I played my first comedy song at an open mic (Which you can see on my YouTube channel, a song called “The First Time I saw You”), a light bulb went off and I realized that I didn’t have to give up the music dream, sort of.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works we should know about?
HP: There is a full feature movie that I wrote and starred in, currently titled “Punching the Clown”, which is in the can and will be released before the end of the year. I also will be continuing my Henry’s Kitchen Series, and hopefully expanding it. And there’s another exciting thing that I can’t really talk about yet, but it involves animation, a medium that I’ve very excited to get into.
Official Website: http://henryphillips.com/
Buy “Neither Here Nor There” on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/neither-here-nor-there/id1126955330
Henry on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Henry-Phillips/105601826260
Henry on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Henlips
Henry’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCd25I7Y3-NEKNOoImYhQ-3g
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