“Phyllis Diller came through a mine field of male comedians when she arrived on the comedy scene and she defused them all,” Tim Conway said. “She won her place in the Hall of Comedy as the First Lady.”
Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, she married Sherwood Diller right out of school (Bluffton College) and was a housewife for several years before getting outside work. She was an advertising writer for a radio station when the Purple Onion helped launch her. She made her network TV debut as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.”
Diller, asked if she was married: “Yes, I’ve worn a wedding ring for 18 years.” Marx replied: “Really? Well, two more payments and it’ll be all yours.”
She credited the self-help book, “The Magic of Believing” by Claude M. Bristol, with giving her the courage to enter the business. Over the years, she would recommend it to aspiring entertainers, even buying it for them sometimes.
Diller worked steadily for decades, in nightclubs and on television. She 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 the faithful “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 `standup’ act of one-line gags.”
“I was one of those life-of-the-party types,” Diller said in 1965. “You’ll find them in every bridge club, at every country club. People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs. They still do.”
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 her advertising career. 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 said in 2006.
A Chicago Tribune columnist, describing her appearance at a nightspot there in 1958, noted she was from San Francisco, hailed her as “the weirdest, wildest yet” _ and made sure to mention her five youngsters.
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, “Fang” remained.
“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. Diller had a cameo in “Splendor in the Grass” and was among the voices in the animated “A Bug’s Life.”
In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” Gypsy Rose Lee played a nosy neighbor. In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”
But standup comedy was her first love. 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!”
“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.”View Entire Story
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