LOS ANGELES — Phyllis Diller, the housewife turned humorist who aimed some of her sharpest barbs at herself, punctuating her jokes with her trademark cackle, died Monday morning in her Los Angeles home at age 95.
“She died peacefully in her sleep and with a smile on her face,” her longtime manager, Milton B. Suchin, told the Associated Press.
Miss 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 was a staple of nightclubs and television from the 1950s — when female comics were rare — until her retirement in 2002. Miss Diller 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 a husband named “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 ‘stand-up’ act of one-line gags.”
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 a successful career as an advertising and radio writer. 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 told the Associated Press in 2006.
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, the foibles of “Fang” remained an integral part of her act.
“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.
In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”
But stand-up comedy was her first love, and when she broke into the business in 1956, it was a field she had largely to herself because female comics weren’t widely accepted then.
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!” laugh.
“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.