Phyllis Diller, Iconic Comedian and Actress
DIller was a housewife and mother of six when she set her sights on show business, and went on to become one of the most distinctive comic performers ever.
Phyllis Diller, a onetime housewife who achieved international renown as a comic performer with one of the most distinctive personalities in show business, died August 20, 2012, in Los Angeles. She was 95.
According to news reports, Diller died in her sleep.
When Groucho Marx got his first look at a young comedienne who’d come on as a contestant on his game show, You Bet Your Life, he couldn’t help but gape. “I had streaked blonde hair, this hooked nose, crooked teeth…. I must have been a weird-looking thing,” the ever-candid Phyllis Diller said of the encounter. “But then again, the court jester was always ugly.”
Such was the frank and flamboyant comedy of a woman who discovered her passion for performing at her children’s PTA meetings and ended up paving the way for many future female stand-up comics.
Born Phyllis Ada Driver, Diller started her life as a serious musician — she studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago — but was married by the time she was twenty-two and soon a mother. As she and her husband struggled to make ends meet — they had six children — he encouraged her to try her hand in stand-up. It wasn’t easy, working nights at comedy clubs, but she used her life as fodder for laughs: “I don’t like to cook. I can make a TV dinner taste like radio.”
Over time Diller honed her act, creating the infamous Diller look and persona with the mile-long cigarette holder and cackling laugh that punctuated an array of biting one-liners. But her laugh often covered for nerves — “I was so uptight for so many years; I was working so hard and I had a lot of baggage” — and for a life that saw its share of tragedy: of her six children, one died in infancy and one suffered from schizophrenia.
In 2000, at age 92, was interviewed for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television by Fred Westbrook.
An excerpt from the interview is appended below.
The entire interview is available online here.
Was there humor in your home growing up?
Lots of humor. If somebody bent a fender, that became a very funny story. All humor rises out of tragedy — small tragedies, hopefully. If it’s a large tragedy, then it has to have more time until it’s funny. For instance, you know the standard joke: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”
Radio played a role in your early career….
My folks died and left me an estate, and I used that all up. Then I had to go to work, so I applied for a columnist job at the local paper and got it. It was my first job. I had a shopping column and a gossip column. For the shopping column, I always wrote funny copy when the advertiser would allow. I became a hot copywriter. That’s why the radio station, KROW in Oakland, hired me away at a larger salary.
My husband, Sherwood Diller, had been nagging me to become a comic. These were the early days of television. We were looking at Art Carney, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle. And my Sherwood realized there was money in comedy and TV. Even when I was working at KROW, I tried to make a transition to the talent side of the business.
At thirty-seven, you debuted at The Purple Onion in San Francisco….
The shock was, I was a great success. Can you imagine the adrenaline? Here was this sophisticated club in this sophisticated town, but I was playing to audiences on the Gray Line tour — which meant you’re playing to people from Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minneapolis. With these people, you must assume nothing. You have to become an entertainer. But this is how you become commercial. If you want to make money, you’ve got to be understood by everybody in the audience at the same moment.
In 1957 you made your national TV debut on You Bet Your Life….
I was playing here in Hollywood at a very chic club on La Cienega. Some advertising people liked my talent; I was doing comedy that no had ever seen. So they got me onto the show. Groucho looked at me, unbelieving. I must have been a weird-looking thing.
By then I had become blonde. Little by little, I was realizing what it meant to be theatrical. I streaked the hair and made it blonde — that way you reflect light. They don’t want to look at a girl with brown hair, especially an ugly girl. This is when I had my old face, which helped. The court jester is always ugly. He’s the guy with the big nose, a hump back, little boots with bells — and all clowns wear gloves. I was creating my persona. I had this hooked nose, crooked teeth — I knew nothing about makeup. But can you picture Liz Taylor delivering a joke?
You made at least thirty appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. How did you get the first booking, and why did Paar keep bringing you back?
I was working at a club in New York where young comics performed. One of the pianists there was also an agent. He was playing for me every night, watching me get powerful laughs. Tom O’Malley, the booker for The Tonight Show, was in night after night, watching the show, but he wouldn’t book me. We were friends, and I went for drinks at his apartment after the show. I finally asked, “Why can’t I get on The Tonight Show?” He said, “What you do is not appropriate for The Tonight Show.”
Did you think that was the end of it?
Well, Harold, my pianist, kept calling The Tonight Show every day, trying to book me. Finally he broke them down. One day they said, “Oh, bring her in,” just to shut him up. We went in that day. I was booked that night and that was history. I was a sensation. Time stood still. It was a big turning point. My material was all totally clean in the nightclub, and therefore it was perfect for television.
When did you start to use your trademark laugh?
That’s a trademark by accident. That’s my real laugh. In the beginning it was nerves. You know how people giggle when they are nervous? I was so nervous for so many years. I was working hard, and I had a lot of baggage. I was neglecting my children, working on the act, and the laugh simply came. People think I laugh a lot more than I do. I don’t laugh that much, and now I only laugh when I’m overcome and have to. Every now and then, when I have a new line that I’m nuts about, I just bellow. A new line is platinum.
How did the cigarette holder come into place as well as the go-go boots and miniskirt?
Everything evolved as I learned. At first, I was going for a flapper look. I had this silly little haircut, which was the worst kind of hairdo for me. But it helped — it made me uglier. I needed fluff, I needed height, I needed fuzzy hair. I added the cigarette holder and used it to show hostility. There were people who thought it was nine miles long — it wasn’t — it was just an ordinary cigarette holder. I used it to make a point. It gave me an excuse to hold up my right hand. It’s a way of getting attention. It’s subliminal, but it works.
And the clothing?
Here I am, telling audiences that I’m underendowed, but I realized it would be a lot better if I had shapeless clothing. The secret of looking flat is a raglan sleeve. The minute you have a sleeve that’s fitted, you have shape. But a raglan sleeve makes you totally flat. And if you raise your arms, your dress comes clear up to your navel — that’s another funny gag. My legs are funny — they’re part of the persona. I could tell them that I was skinny as a rail, flat as a highway, and I got big laughs.
Now, the go-go boots, I designed those boots — they were all custom-made to hit my ankle at the skinniest point, which would make my legs look like toothpicks. The joke was: The gym teacher says, “What are your measurements?” I say, “Twenty.” So he says, “Well, what are the other two?” I say, “What other two? It’s twenty, twenty, twenty.”
How did Fang enter the routine?
Fang was an ad lib one night at the Purple Onion. The joke was: “You know, I had an accident. I had to call home and explain to old Fang Face” — this is the husband — “I had a little accident at the corner of Post and Geary.” He says, “Post and Geary? They don’t cross.” I say, “Well, they do now.”
I take it, people associated that character with your real husband?
Or whatever man I was standing with — “Is this Fang?” Sherwood liked the idea. He would sit in the audience and tell people he was Fang. I was against it, but I didn’t try to stop him much.
When you appeared in Las Vegas in the ‘60s, you were a female comic in a man’s world….
I was the only woman. I wrote my own material. I guess the other comics did, too, of course, but no one had ever heard it from a woman’s angle. The mother-in-law was always his mother. I did a lot of housewife stuff. My first bit was about stuffing a turkey. You think, “Well, this isn’t going to interest men,” but it did, because they’re interested in women. And if it’s funny, it’ll sell.
How did the work affect your family life?
Remember, my success was very gradual, and it was all very sad early on because the mother — me — was not with her children. Thank God, I was there for the first six years for all of my children. In Peter’s case, I was there the first sixteen years. But the fact is, I was often separated from them. We were homeless, and they were with relatives who were ill-equipped to take care of little kids. But then the great day came when I got enough money to buy a house.
In 1964 you appeared in your first Bob Hope special. Your chemistry with him clicked in many TV shows and films….
He really understood my comedy. He loved to have somebody he could tease. And I like to be teased — that’s what I do to myself. It’s called mock hostility. I’m mad at the mother-in-law, I’m mad at the neighbors, I’m mad at Fang, I’m mad at everybody; I’m inept, I can’t do anything right. The kind of joke I love most of all is where I’m lambasting somebody and it’s obviously my fault. Whatever is wrong, I’m the dummy. That’s a double joke. Those are very hard to come by.
How important were the talk shows and game shows that you appeared on?
Extremely important. It’s called exposure, and I don’t mean being nude on a bus. It means being seen time and again by people who must become your friend. They must come to like you. I sign every letter with the word love — even business letters. If everybody had that feeling of kindness for his fellow man, it’d be a wonderful world. Frequently that word is used on me. I have a feeling it’s because I’ve sent out so much love that it’s coming back to me.
In 1965 you made headlines: “Phyllis Diller Divorces Fang.”
They all assumed that Sherwood was Fang. But Fang is a mythical character. I had met Warde Donovan five years earlier, in the musical Wonderful Town. He was my leading man. When we met, we were both married. But his wife died, and that’s when I divorced Sherwood. I didn’t feel any guilt at all because Sherwood had been having an affair with our housekeeper.
Warde Donovan was an actor; he was more theatrical….
Extremely theatrical. He was really handsome. Six-foot-two, eyes of blue. I’m a sucker for good looks. Oh, God, was he sexy and such a gentleman — when he was sober. [Prior to that marriage] I’d been doing all the work. I opened the doors; I shoveled the coal. If I didn’t paint the room, it didn’t get painted. And here was a gentleman opening doors, pulling out chairs, treating me like a lady.
How did your ABC sitcom, The Pruitts of Southampton, come about?
Red Skelton had fallen madly in love with my work and wanted to give me my first sitcom. It was going to be Phyllis and Fang. But then I had the divorce, and that just panicked them. What they didn’t understand was that Fang was not Sherwood Diller; he was an ad-lib character. But it made them so paranoid. They opted not to do the show, but they let me keep the money — just because I divorced my real husband.
Somebody got me The Pruitts of Southampton, and I was thrilled. I loved the premise — it was the other side of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was about people who had been terribly rich and lost all their money. They’re still in the grand house, but they’re broke.
You had some storied cast members: Grady Sutton, Reginald Gardiner, Gypsy Rose Lee….
Grady Sutton had worked in all of the W. C. Field movies as a young boy. He was precious. And Reginald Gardner had been married to Hedy Lamarr; he was reading her book between shots on the set and telling me a lot of sexy things about her. Gypsy Rose Lee — a precious woman, crazy as a loon, but wonderful. She and I became very fast friends. She drove this beautiful silver-cloud Rolls-Royce. In her kitchen, she had about thirty-nine birds that were allowed to fly around. The rule was, be careful what you eat — it wasn’t necessarily an hors d’oeuvre.
Did you enjoy appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show?
Ed Sullivan was a darling, a terrific host, but he knew nothing about comedy. Put the dunce cap on Ed Sullivan about comedy — trust me. He would get into it with the comics. Shecky Greene was on, and he had a big collar and a teeny bow tie. That was part of the act. Do you know that Ed wouldn’t let him wear it?
The last Ed Sullivan Show I was booked on, I was also doing Hello, Dolly! on Broadway at the same time. I was overworked, overtired and didn’t get my material on the cue cards when I should have. Ed had watched them making the cue cards, and do you know what he did? He took out every punch line and left the setup. He took all the jokes out. I had to walk.
In 1971 you did something entirely different, going onstage as Dame Illya Dillya, performing with a symphony orchestra.
I’d spent my entire childhood learning to play the piano. And I had enough facility to make it look really good. The Pittsburgh symphony called and said, “We’d like to have you for a show.” I said, “What fun! I’ll play some Beethoven and some Bach,” and there was this pause. They wanted my act, but they never said that. They let me just come and play the piano with the symphony. For ten years I did about ten concerts a year, playing Beethoven and Bach with a symphony orchestra.
Do you still play?
Only rarely, because I’ve switched to painting. I do a lot of painting now. I’ve had about fifteen one-woman shows, sold thousands of paintings. It’s a great thrill.
You’ve also made headlines with your facelift.
Here’s the way it happened: I was playing a witchy old lady on The Sonny & Cher Show. There must have been some really bad lighting because when I came home and watched the show, I saw that when I reared my head back, something came out of my chin. I had bags under my eyes, real bad, and I looked at myself and I thought, “This is too much — this is too ugly.” I decided to do the whole thing, neck, up above the eyes, below the eyes, whole new nose and I got my teeth straightened. A whole new me.
My publicist advised me to not tell anyone, but of course I blabbed my head off. I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s just that when someone said, “What are you doing Thursday?” I answered, “I’m going to have my face lifted.” It never occurred to me that it should have to be a secret.
Something very serious happened to you in 1999.
Three times I died. Three times my heart stopped. Because I happened to be in the hospital, somebody brought me back to life. At my age, three weeks in a hospital bed is enough to kill you. The worst part of this was not the heart, because they put in a pacemaker, but they sent me home paralyzed. I went through therapy and finally learned how to walk again.
What advice would you give an aspiring stand-up?
Work whenever possible. You’re going to learn everything you need to know from the audience. When they laugh, you’re a winner; when they don’t laugh, you’re a loser. [Actor-comedian] Stan Freberg caught one of my early shows at the Purple Onion and gave me some wonderful advice. He said, “I don’t care how in love you are with a line. Do it three times and if it bombs all three times, it’s out.”
Also, have a stance, an attitude. Joan Rivers has an attitude. Tim Allen has an attitude. Another comic I’m crazy in love with: Richard Lewis. This is what I mean by stance. Develop your particular persona. When they all look alike, you got nothing.
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