Punching The Clown
Henry Phillips has the funniest material you’ve never heard.
In fact, it’s quite likely you’ve never even seen the American comic’s name before, much less heard his twisted and hilarious songs. But the New Jersey native is relatively okay with the slow burn of his career thus far. “I’m doing fine right now,” he says. “I mean, I’m kind of frustrated to hear about what’s going to happen next, but that’s all part of it. You can never get the answers you want fast enough.”
The What Comes Next mentality is a result of the slow-burn success of Phillips’ film Punching The Clown. The semi-autobiographical story follows the comic and singer as he moves to Los Angeles, experiences an accidentally stratospheric amount of success and is slowly eaten alive by the city of angels.
The Gregori Viens (The Loner, Islands of Roses) directed film had its premiere in 2009 at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. After playing in limited release it’s gone on to become a minor cult hit, with endorsements from entertainment heavyweights like comedian Sarah Silverman and, strangely enough, pop musician Moby.
Phillips explains that Silverman’s support has been particularly significant. “Sarah has a lot of clout in LA, and anywhere, really,” he says. “Over the years a lot of comedians have shown clips of my performances to other comedians, and then you get them re-tweeting links to my stuff. All of that circulation is pretty helpful.”
The interest has spread to the extent where American cable is now interested in the comic. “I’ve actually got a development deal with the Showtime Network,” he says. “What we’ve done is cut up the first half hour of the film, and cut it very differently to pick the best elements to create a first episode. We’ve shown it to them, and they’ve asked me for a second episode script. So now I’m just waiting to hear from them.”
Phillips attributes the film’s lack of mainstream success to certain unavoidable tropes of Hollywood. “Distributors are probably reluctant to step in with us because there aren’t any famous people in the film,” he says. “Everyone I’ve talked to that’s seen the film has really liked it, but there’s still an element of us not being very good at ‘doing’ Hollywood.”
Phillips has just returned from a European tour with comic Doug Stanhope, and is engaging with any and all performance opportunities. Over the last eighteen months he’s been uploading cooking videos to YouTube that are a satire of the traditional presentation of the genre. “It started because every time I try to cook something I’d go on YouTube and look up how to do it. There are these videos of a guy in his attic teaching people how to make chilli, and I thought the really interesting thing here is not what he’s making, but what’s this guy’s story? What drives him to do that? So I made the videos of me making something basic like French toast, and messing it up, and playing really over the top and depressing music,” he says.
The videos feature sporadic moments of temper where Phillips’ character begins to swear, and is swiftly edited out. “Swearing can be extremely funny if you just drop it in there in the middle of something plain against the flow of what’s being presented,” he says. “The other side of that is I get a lot of people who don’t realise what I’m doing is satire. And every once in a while my friends tell me their kids have been watching my videos and trying to learn how to cook. That must be confusing.”
BY BENJAMIN COOPER
Punching The Clown is out now on DVD.