Phyllis Diller: The Last of the Not-Hot Mamas

A pioneer in the field of comedy, Phyllis Diller passed away on 20 August 2012 at the age of 95. Renowned for her impeccable timing, garish wardrobe, and machine-gun-crossed-with-a-hyena laugh, Diller began her career as a stand up comic at the age of 37. Many of Diller’s self-deprecating routines revolved around her horrible cooking, five children, and a fictitious husband known only as “Fang”. (Her real life husband of 26 years, Sherwood Diller, served as her manager until they divorced in 1965.)

Before she conquered comedy, Phyllis Diller was a housewife, an advertising copywriter, and an accomplished pianist. She left copywriting behind after her husband encouraged her to pursue comedy. She began performing shortly thereafter. In 1956, she received her big break, making a splash at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub.

Diller made her mark not by being lone female in a male-dominated field, but rather by being the self-described “life of the party” with rapid-fire one-liners built around deprecation and dreary domesticity. Unlike so many actresses who appeared in comedies and employed a subtle sheen of sexuality to offset any laughs, Diller was fearless in her working class approach to comedy, making stand up her vehicle of choice. She was unafraid to be perceived as “ugly”. In fact, she downplayed her feminine attributes and encouraged her audience to laugh at her skinny legs, beaky nose, and outlandish ensembles by beating them to the punch with jokes at her own expense.

Not just a Queen of Comedy, Diller was a Queen of All Media in her own right. Her career featured work in radio, television, film, and even a three-month stint on Broadway as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly. In 2005, she released her autobiography, Like a Lampshade In a Whorehouse.

Some of Diller’s best-known television and film appearances were alongside the legendary Bob Hope, appearing in 23 of his specials and in three motion pictures, as well as touring overseas with the USO to Vietnam in 1966. Diller even did voice work, lending her distinctive cackle to the 1967 Rankin-Bass animated feature, Mad Monster Party as “The Monster’s Mate” and more recently as Peter Griffin’s mother on a 2006 episode of The Family Guy.

Although she retired from comedy in 2002, her career and retirement were chronicled in the 2004 documentary, Goodnight, We Love You. She made her final television appearance on her friend and fellow comic’s reality series, Roseanne’s Nuts. There was Phyllis Diller: Well into her 90s, pounding (and holding!) her liquor, and sharp as a tack, telling jokes and stories with more flair and lucidity than women a fraction of her age.

Unlike her fellow, recently deceased nonagenarian Helen Gurley Brown, Phyllis Diller never set out to become a feminist icon. It was a role she just stumbled into. In addition to being one of the only female comics on the scene in the ’50s, Diller was one of the first women in the entertainment industry to cop to having had plastic surgery, admitting to having undergone no less than 15 procedures.

By being among the first – if not the first female stand up comic to breach mainstream popular culture – Diller inspired several generations of women to get up on stage and “make ’em laugh”. Although she opened the doors for countless female comics, it’s impossible not to notice the difference between Diller and her more direct descendents Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr, whose comedy was predicated on (among other things) their lackluster sex lives; and the current crop of comediennes embodied by Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman who frequently discuss how often they have sex and how great the nookie is.

That said, Diller was among the last of a dying breed of comics who recognized comedy as the domain of the outcast. Diller knew that the best comedy with the most longevity is rooted in poking fun at life’s nasty pitfalls and commiserating with her audience. It’s doubtful that Diller would balk at being referred to as “The Last of the Not-Hot Mamas.” Rather, she’d embrace it the way she did the fright wigs and tacky togs that made her a household name.

Ultimately, Phyllis Diller got the last laugh. She passed away peacefully in her sleep with a smile on her face. A fitting way to go for a lady who made so many people smile during her decades as an entertainer.


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