A tribute to Phyllis Diller, Queen of Comedy
Having made it big in the early 1960s, coined as “the female Bob Hope,” Phyllis Diller didn’t even get her start in comedy until she was a 37 year old married mother of 5.
While she starred alongside Hope in a few films, and had a career doing voices in animated film, she was most beloved for her appearances on talk shows and variety shows.
Her unmitigated style lent her a presence that refused to be ignored — the big, colourful hair, the outfits she described as making her look “look like an ostrich on a three-day binge” and her distinctive cackle made an instant impression on audiences in a time when female comedians were a true rarity.
Though some thought her laugh was over exaggerated, she insisted otherwise: “It’s my real laugh. It’s in the family. When I was a kid my father called me the laughing hyena.”
Joan Rivers, commenting on her passing, noted the reason behind the image she cultivated: “The only tragedy is that she was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny. If she had started today, Phyllis could have stood there in Dior and Harry Winston and become the major star that she was.”
Her stand-up act revolved around her experiences as a wife and mother, and in 1961, Time Magazine wrote this about her act:
“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 ‘stand-up’ act of one-line gags.”
While she had two husbands and a variety of other relationships in her 95 years, her onstage husband was always known as “Fang” — a character central to her stand-up routine.
“Fang is permanent in the act, of course,” she once said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary,” she often joked.
In 1988, she was the first female admitted to the Friars Club, after having snuck in years before dressed as a man in order to attend the Sid Ceasar roast.
She credited the book, The Magic of Believing by Claude M. Bristol, for giving her the push to finally enter the business after having been a housewife for so many years, and she often bought the book for aspiring entertainers.
In 1999 she had a heart attack but recovered, and in 2002 she finally retired, noting that spending weeks on the road was no longer manageable for her.
In 2005, she published her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse and in 2006 the documentary Goodnight, We Love You highlighted her career as a trailblazer for female comedians.
Watch some of her stand-up bits below:
Watch some highlights from the documentary, Goodnight, We Love You:
Sources: Global News, Jezebel