Humorist Phyllis Diller dies at 95 in Los Angeles

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NEW YORK (AP) - Some of the most promising talent in show business was on the bill one day and night in 1955 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion:

Eartha Kitt and Alice Ghostley; Paul Lynde and Robert Clary; a singer and dancer with the stage name Maya Angelou, and an eccentric former housewife, a few years older than her fellow performers, with the married name Phyllis Diller.

Angelou’s family, including two small children (Clyde and Joyce), were seated in the front row. Years later, she would remember watching Diller and wondering how her guests would respond to her friend’s “aura of madness.”

“Black people rarely forgave whites for being ragged, unkempt and uncaring. There was a saying which explained the disapproval, `You been white all your life. Ain’t got no further along than this? What ails you?’” Angelou wrote in “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting Merry Like Christmas,” a memoir published in 1976.

“When Phyllis came on stage Clyde almost fell off the chair and Joyce nearly knocked over her Shirley Temple. The comedienne, dressed outrageously and guffawing like a hiccoughing horse and a bell clapper, chose to play to the two children. They were charmed and so convulsed they gasped for breath.”

The housewife soon became a star.

“AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!

Diller, the cackling template for Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and so many others, died Monday morning in her Los Angeles home at age 95. She faced the end, fittingly, “with a smile on her face,” said longtime manager Milton Suchin.

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 wasn’t the first woman to crack jokes on stage; Gracie Allen had been getting laughs for decades playing dumb for George Burns. But Diller was among the first who didn’t need a man around. The only guy in her act was a husband named “Fang,” who was never seen and didn’t exist.

“We lost a comedy legend today,” Ellen DeGeneres wrote on Twitter. “Phyllis Diller was the queen of the one-liners. She was a pioneer.” Tweeted Barbra Streisand: “I adored her. She was wondrous spirit who was great to me.” Rivers added that she and her daughter had lunched with Diller last month.

“I’m beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller. We were friends,” Rivers wrote. “The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.”

Vicki Lawrence said Diller was a pioneer in a male dominated industry.

“And yet, she was one of the nicest, kindest, funniest, sincerest women I have ever known,” she said. “She had such a gentle, hysterical way of laughing at herself without ever making us feel uncomfortable about laughing with her.”

The Friars Club released a statement noting that in 1988 Diller was among the first women admitted _ legitimately. A few years earlier, she had snuck in for a Sid Caesar roast, dressed as a man.

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