Phyllis Diller: Pioneer and Cackler-in-Chief
A classically trained pianist. A housewife and copy editor. The Madonna of the Geritol Set. These are just a few of the things that describe Phyllis Diller. Trailblazer is another. Diller started doing stand-up, which is never easy, at age 37, with kids in tow, and at a time when it was even more male-dominated than today. For that alone, she deserves praise. That she did it so well only makes it better, and sadder now that she’s left us.
Phyllis Diller will be remembered as an incredibly funny comedian, which is as it should be. She will also be cherished by many female comedians for breaking down barriers and blazing the path that they now walk. Those skinny chicken legs of hers stood where only men had done so before. She joked about how bad she was at being domestic, or in other words, at being a woman. She didn’t like to cook or clean. Her husband was an alcoholic and stupid. She was ugly, with no breasts and scrawny legs. All those things that women were supposed to be (and in many ways are still expected to be), were precisely what she made fun of. But she did it with herself as the foil. Maybe by doing it that way she made it more accessible for the audience. Regardless, she got to do it for as long as she did because she always made it hysterically funny.
For anyone who may think she simply winged it, or got lucky, just know that she categorized her jokes. She basically had a card catalog of all her gags. I don’t know how she felt about feminism, or the women’s movement, and I suspect she caught some flak for the plastic surgery, but I have to believe that not a few women loved it when she disguised herself as a man and broke into the male-only Friar’s Club.
She loved her fans, and personally signed all photographs. Someone once wrote to her and asked how to get into show business. She wrote back with a two-page letter full of instructions. Not just funny. Not just brave as hell. Phyllis Diller was a (sassy) class act.
As Kathy Griffin said in a tribute to Phyllis, “Every female comedian looks up to you, and anyone who knows what’s funny laughs with you.” It’s said she died in her sleep, smiling. That only seems fair.
For more on Diller, including some of her priceless stand-up, check this out.
Image from http://www.salon.com/2012/08/20/phyllis_diller_dead_at_95/