Abdul Basit Hashmi
Phyllis Diller – More than Just a Funny Gal
By Abdul Basit Hashmi –
STANDUPWORLD staff writer
In order to appreciate how many of today’s top comics got started, it helps to look where their inspiration took root. And Phyllis Diller is definitely on the list for many modern comedy acts.
Familiar names including Ellen DeGeneres, Rosanne Barr, and Joan Rivers (who actually wrote jokes for Diller) have recognized Phyllis as a huge inspiration in the pursuit of their comedy careers. Phyllis Diller broke all kinds of glass ceilings for future generations of comedy talent.
To truly appreciate Diller’s rise to fame, you’ve gotta start at the beginning. Phyllis was born in 1917 and raised in Ohio. She attended two different colleges after high school to pursue her musical education. Diller had a real talent for playing the piano, but she lacked confidence when performing. That quickly burned out any hope she had of playing professionally.
In 1939, Phyllis married Sherwood Anderson Diller and the couple welcomed six children. The comedian found that she had a knack for coming up with one-liners about the mundane life of a mother. She would let the jokes fly when she was with other mothers who encouraged her to make a go of writing comedy.
By the time her family found their way to California, Phyllis had been working on her own comedy routine. She got herself a job at a SanFrancisco television station and worked on getting the courage to pitch her act.
The hosts at that television station loved it and they put her on their show in 1955. Little did Diller know that this opportunity had put her on the fast track to an outstanding comedy career.
When Phyllis was in her late 30s, she got a gig performing at The Purple Onion nightclub in SanFrancisco. The engagement was supposed to last for two weeks. But Diller ended up performing at the club for more than a year and a half.
All of the exposure she got at the extended performances led to appearances on talk shows and variety acts. She brought her one-liner barbs to banter with some of the time’s top comedians including Jack Benny, Red Skeleton, and Jack Paar. Diller also became a contestant on You Bet Your Life, hosted by the renowned Groucho Marx in 1950.
Despite going through difficult personal relationships throughout her career, Phyllis’s comedy was unstoppable. She took her divorce from her first husband and managed to come up with one of her favorite topics in her routine- “Fang”, her fictional husband. To quote this hilarious lady, “‘Fang’ is permanent in my act. Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They are temporary”.
Fang”, her fictional husband
Once the entertainment opportunities started rolling in, they never seemed to stop. You could see Phyllis appear on The Tonight Show starring Jack Paar, A Bob Hope Comedy Special, What’s My Line?, What’s This Song?, The Jack Paar Show, That Regis Philbin Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Match Game, The Joey Bishop Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Bob Hope Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Hollywood Squares, and so many more.
Diller’s versatility and relatable content kept the talk and game show appearance opportunities rolling in for several decades in her career. She was known to describe her act as “tragedy revisited”.
In addition to her sharp wit, she also combined over-the-top costumes, wild, untamed hair, and chintzy makeup, along with a contagious, loud cackle for a laugh—she created an unforgettable performance every time. She also used a cigarette holder as a prop for her routines during the 1960s and 1970s, but Diller was a lifelong non-smoker.
The loveable comedian would also go on to have several facelifts and cosmetic procedures throughout her career and use the experiences in her act. On a more serious note, Phyllis agreed to pose for some risque photos that were intended for publication in Playboy magazine. While the photos never did make it to print, one can be viewed in her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse”.
Diller’s ability to grow and adapt to a changing entertainment landscape provided opportunities for the comedian to try her hand as an actor. During the last decades of her career, she acted in The Bold and the Beautiful, Family Guy, Boston Legal, 7th Heaven, Even Stevens, and The Drew Carey Show. Diller appeared in too many shows to count, but you can head over to a site like IMDB to scroll and scroll and scroll through her filmography.
Another area in which Diller excelled was in voice acting. She has credits in a large number of animated television shows, but A Bug’s Life (both 1 and 2) was arguably her most recognized voice-acting role as Queen.
Ultimately, no one was able to poke fun at themselves quite like Phyllis Diller. Some of her best quips are “I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they would boo,” “You know you’re old when someone compliments you on your alligator shoes and you’re barefoot,” and “I still take the pill because I don’t want any more grandchildren.”
Phyllis Diller decided to retire from her active Hollywood career in 2002. While she made a few appearances here and there, she never fully returned. Phyllis passed away in 2012, leaving laughter, inspiration, and a legacy that will last for a long time.
This lady was skilled at many things, but comedy will always be at #1. If you’re new to Phyllis Diller or haven’t seen her work for a while, you can chip away at watching your way through her filmography. You might not be able to view everything, but you’re guaranteed to step away with some new favorite jokes in your arsenal.
Diller had a real talent for playing the piano
A Bob Hope Comedy Special
The Carol Burnett Show
Phyliss on ‘You Bet Your Life’