Comic leaves an eccentric, hilarious mark

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NEW YORK — Some of the most promising talent in show business was on the bill one day and night in 1955 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion:

Eartha Kitt and Alice Ghostley; Paul Lynde and Robert Clary; a singer and dancer with the stage name Maya Angelou, and an eccentric former housewife, a few years older than her fellow performers, with the married name Phyllis Diller.

Angelou’s family, including two small children (Clyde and Joyce), were seated in the front row. Years later, she would remember watching Diller and wondering how her guests would respond to her friend’s “aura of madness.”

“Black people rarely forgave whites for being ragged, unkempt and uncaring. There was a saying which explained the disapproval, ‘You been white all your life. Ain’t got no further along than this? What ails you?’” Angelou wrote in “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting Merry Like Christmas,” a memoir published in 1976.

“When Phyllis came on stage Clyde almost fell off the chair and Joyce nearly knocked over her Shirley Temple. The comedienne, dressed outrageously and guffawing like a hiccoughing horse and a bell clapper, chose to play to the two children. They were charmed and so convulsed they gasped for breath.”

The housewife soon became a star.

“AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!

Diller, the cackling template for Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and so many others, died Monday morning in her Los Angeles home at age 95. She faced the end, fittingly, “with a smile on her face,” said longtime manager Milton Suchin.

Diller, who suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1999, was found by her son, Perry Diller. The cause of her death has not been released.

She wasn’t the first woman to crack jokes on stage; Gracie Allen had been getting laughs for decades playing dumb for George Burns. But Diller was among the first who didn’t need a man around. The only guy in her act was a husband named “Fang,” who was never seen and didn’t exist.

“We lost a comedy legend today,” Ellen DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. “Phyllis Diller was the queen of the one-liners. She was a pioneer.” Tweeted Barbra Streisand: “I adored her. She was wondrous spirit who was great to me.” Rivers added that she and her daughter had lunched with Diller last month.

“I’m beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller. We were friends,” Rivers wrote. “The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.”

Vicki Lawrence said Diller was a pioneer in a male dominated industry.

“And yet, she was one of the nicest, kindest, funniest, sincerest women I have ever known,” she said. “She had such a gentle, hysterical way of laughing at herself without ever making us feel uncomfortable about laughing with her.”

The Friars Club released a statement noting that in 1988 Diller was among the first women admitted — legitimately. A few years earlier, she had snuck in for a Sid Caesar roast, dressed as a man.

“Phyllis Diller came through a mine field of male comedians when she arrived on the comedy scene and she defused them all,” Tim Conway said. “She won her place in the Hall of Comedy as the First Lady.”

Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, she married Sherwood Diller right out of school (Bluffton College) and was a housewife for several years before getting outside work. She was an advertising writer for a radio station when the Purple Onion helped launch her. She made her network TV debut as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.”

Diller, asked if she was married: “Yes, I’ve worn a wedding ring for 18 years.” Marx replied: “Really? Well, two more payments and it’ll be all yours.”

She credited the self-help book, “The Magic of Believing” by Claude M. Bristol, with giving her the courage to enter the business. Over the years, she would recommend it to aspiring entertainers, even buying it for them sometimes.

Diller worked steadily for decades, in nightclubs and on television. She built her stand-up act around the persona of the corner-cutting housewife (“I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard”) with bizarre looks, a wardrobe to match (by “Omar of Omaha”) and the faithful “Fang.”

Wrote Time magazine in 1961: “Onstage comes something that, by its own description, looks like a sackful of doorknobs. With hair dyed by Alcoa, pipe-cleaner limbs and knees just missing one another when the feet are wide apart, this is not Princess Volupine. It is Phyllis Diller, the poor man’s Auntie Mame, only successful female among the New Wave comedians and one of the few women funny and tough enough to belt out a ‘standup’ act of one-line gags.”

“I was one of those life-of-the-party types,” Diller said in 1965. “You’ll find them in every bridge club, at every country club. People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs. They still do.”

She didn’t get into comedy until she was nearly 40, after her first husband, Sherwood Diller, prodded her for two years to give up her advertising career. Through it all, she was also a busy mother. “We had five kids at the time. I don’t how he thought we’d handle that,” she said in 2006.

A Chicago Tribune columnist, describing her appearance at a nightspot there in 1958, noted she was from San Francisco, hailed her as “the weirdest, wildest yet” — and made sure to mention her five youngsters.

Her husband managed her career until the couple’s 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. Shortly after her divorce she married entertainer Warde Donovan, but they separated within months. Through both marriages and other relationships, “Fang” remained.

“Fang is permanent in the act, of course,” she once said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary.”

She also appeared in movies, including “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number” and “Eight on the Lam” with Bob Hope. Diller had a cameo in “Splendor in the Grass” and was among the voices in the animated “A Bug’s Life.”

In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” Gypsy Rose Lee played a nosy neighbor. In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”

But standup comedy was her first love. Although she could be serious during interviews, sooner or later a joke would pop out, often as not followed by that outrageous “AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!”

“It’s my real laugh,” she once said. “It’s in the family. When I was a kid my father called me the laughing hyena.”

Her looks were a frequent topic, and she did everything she could to accentuate them — negatively. She wore outrageous fright wigs and deliberately shopped for stage shoes that made her legs look as skinny as possible.

“The older I get, the funnier I get,” she said in 1961. “Think what I’ll save in not having my face lifted.”

She felt different about plastic surgery later, though, and her face, and other body parts, underwent a remarkable transformation. Efforts to be beautiful became a mainstay of her act.

Commenting in 1995 about the repainting of the Hollywood sign, she cracked, “It took 300 gallons, almost as much as I put on every morning.” She said her home “used to be haunted, but the ghosts haven’t been back since the night I tried on all my wigs.”

She recovered from a 1999 heart attack with the help of a pacemaker, but finally retired in 2002, saying advancing age was making it too difficult for her to spend several weeks a year on the road. “I have energy, but I don’t have lasting energy,” she said in 2006. “You have to know your limitations.”

Diller continued to take occasional small parts in movies and TV shows (“Family Guy”) and pursued painting as a serious hobby. She published her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” in 2005. The 2006 film “Goodnight, We Love You” documented her career.

When she turned 90 in July 2007, she fractured a bone in her back and was forced to cancel a planned birthday appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” But it didn’t stop her from wisecracking: “I still take the pill ‘cause I don’t want any more grandchildren.”

Her other books included “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints” and “Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual.”

“Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said in a 1982 interview that threatened to turn serious. “I’m a comic. I don’t deal with problems when I’m working.”

“I want people to laugh.”

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