Phyllis Diller died Monday, August 20, 2012, in her sleep, with a smile on her face at age 95. If ever anyone deserved to die in her sleep with a smile on her face it was Ms. Diller, as she liked to be called. For 47 years she convulsed audiences with laughter, and for longer than that treated friends and strangers with love, respect and tolerance.
At age 37, with a chronically unemployed husband and five children, Ms. Diller wasn’t looking to be a trail blazer, just a breadwinner. Pioneer was just a label she picked up along the way to becoming a success, because before her there were no nationally known female stand-up comedians. When Ms. Diller took the stage at San Francisco’s Purple Onion in 1955, there were only a few scattered women existing on the outskirts of stand-upville.
The incomparable Moms Mabley was also hacking a fresh trail using her crusty grandmother character, but racial intolerance kept her from TV and radio and confined to black venues. Hilarious women like Belle Barth, Rusty Warren and Pearl Williams were relegated to the late night shows in night clubs where the only way to hold the attention of a drunken crowd was to feed them suggestive jokes and bawdy songs. It was simply not acceptable for a woman to stand in front of a sober, paying crowd and bang out clean, strong jokes like a man. There was one marvelous exception that proved the rule. An attractive and stylishly dressed Jean Carroll eschewed self-deprecating humor for husband jokes as witty and biting as any contemporary male comic’s wife jokes. She made quite a few appearances on the ultra-popular Ed Sullivan Show but was unable to break into the star’s dressing room. Carroll was ahead of her time and in stand-up comedy that meant soon out of the business. She finally married and retired.
Life in the suburbs of New York was maybe fine for Jean Carroll but Phyllis Diller had a rented house full of mouths to feed. Ms. Diller understood the formula that every comic can compute before ever stepping behind the microphone – big laughs draw big crowds that pay big money.
Like every stand-up before and after her, Ms. Diller learned on the job; gaining confidence from joke to joke, building an act from show to show and creating a comic voice by listening to a thousand audiences.
She created a unique and devastatingly effective stage look. By hiding her good figure beneath clownish outfits Ms. Diller neutralized both the baser male instincts and any competition with other women. Absolutely key for that era, if the audiences were to hear her at all.
What they heard were one-liners delivered in the machine gun, barely-let-them-up-for-air style of her hero and eventual mentor, Bob Hope. She developed a distinctive, braying laugh to punctuate the punchline or goose the audience to laugh. She made silly faces. Nothing new here, in one way or another, these were all tried and true methods.
Ms. Diller’s true subversive side can be found in the jokes she wrote and told. Women in the 1950’s raised perfect children on nutritious meals in spotless homes. Phyllis Diller turned the “My wife can’t cook” joke on its head, with “I don’t clean either” jokes like, “Housework can’t kill you, but why take the chance.” Men were the strong, unchallenged breadwinners. Ms. Diller chopped them all down to size with a barrage of jokes about her lazy, unromantic, beer-guzzling husband, “Fang”. It is rather ironic that at the same time Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce were conspicuously changing the discourse in stand-up comedy, Phyllis Diller was leading a one-woman charge up the other side of the hill.
Only three years after she started, Phyllis Diller made her first national TV appearance with Jack Paar in 1958. And from then until 1965, when Joan Rivers broke out on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as far as women go, Phyllis Diller pretty much had the stand-up scene to herself. She made good use of that time. While most stand-ups don’t outlast the purchasing power of their generation, Phyllis Diller was a brand name in stand-up comedy, attracting big crowds and making them laugh until she retired in 2002.
As a stand-up comic, this alone is enough for me to love and respect her. Then Ms. Diller made it personal.
She called after one of my shots on The Tonight Show. I wasn’t expecting any calls that night. Comics know your friends, colleagues and family only call after the first national TV spot, unless you bomb, of course. I was further shocked when she introduced herself on the phone, and told me to call her Phyllis. I grew up watching this lady on the television. My dad loved Phyllis like he did all comedians. We kids learned the hard way to shut up while the comic talked. My dad would have one of us turn up the volume on the TV and then laugh like crazy. I knew what was funny before I ever got the joke. She was on TV a lot and that made her a star in our household. That’s all I needed to know. All of these memories were undoubtedly flashing through my body on a cellular level which was probably why I never asked her how she got my telephone number.
Phyllis mentioned this joke I did about Pat Robertson who was running for President in 1988 because “God told him to”. I said when God told me to vote for Pat, I would. While I was still gloating about the Robertson joke, Phyllis went on to say my best stuff was about men and women, that if I listen to the tape of the show, those were my biggest laughs. In the course of our conversation, Phyllis explained that in the laughter, the audience said what they found funny in the comic, what they wanted to hear from that particular comic. She was right on the money, that Pat Robertson joke aside, the audience didn’t really buy political jokes from me, but was okay when I talked of my loves, relationships or whatever it is you want to call the mess that is intimate human interaction. I took her advice to heart.
Over the years she sent pretty, funny cards and we had the occasional phone call. I know it wasn’t just me. I have heard countless stories of Phyllis being nice to comics of every level of the show biz food chain.
When I needed a road story for a book on stand-up misadventures (“I Killed”), Phyllis readily supplied one. Then in 2009, director Jordan Brady approached me about doing a documentary on stand-up comedy (“I Am Comic”).
I immediately called a 92 year-old Phyllis, hoping. In days we were at her house with a camera crew. The first thing seen upon walking into her living room is a giant oil painting of Bob Hope. Phyllis was loyal. Her home was beautifully decorated. The walls lined with work done by other artists. Phyllis was classy. On the walls of her stairway and second floor hallway, were her paintings, each with a price tag. Phyllis was practical.
I bought one of her paintings that day. Most of the crew did. We got discounts. Probably everybody got discounts, like a 20% coupon from Bed, Bath and Beyond, but the lowered price sure felt good that day.
While Jordan worked with the camera crew I talked with Phyllis while her make-up was applied. The make-up artist paused for a moment and Phyllis jokingly cautioned her, “Don’t forget the eyelashes. I’m not funny without the eyelashes.” Her instincts were as sharp as ever. The boxer wasn’t going into the ring until the gloves were laced properly.
Once she was in front of the camera and everyone was in place Phyllis asked Jordan if it the crew was allowed to laugh. Jordan said yes, of course. She was visibly delighted. She knew she was about to get a little fix of laughter, good for the blood of a comic at any age.
She was as funny and insightful as ever.
In between takes she told me in our next lives we should get married. She even punctuated it with a one note version of her famous laugh, “Ha.”
Nothing sexier than a funny woman.
Look out, Phyllis. I’m coming for you.
Thanks to Ritch for that fine piece, exclusively written for us. If you enjoyed it, subscribe to The Starfish (it’s free of course) for more of this acclaimed US comedian’s work, as well as the best from Perth’s west.