Phyllis Diller, 1917–2012
The comedian who paved the way for female stand-up
Comedian Phyllis Diller’s trademarks were a maniacal cackle and a fright-wig hairdo. The first was natural, she claimed, but the hairstyle came about by mistake. After years of bleaching her hair, Diller was advised by a scalp clinic to brush it upward to promote circulation. “I was so busy I’d forgotten to put it back down when I’d go out on interviews for jobs,” she later said. “But it worked.”
When Diller started doing stand-up comedy, said The Hollywood Reporter, she was a 37-year-old San Francisco mother of five “who had previously performed only in PTA skits.” Encouraged by her then-husband, Sherwood Diller, she developed the comedy persona of a thorny housewife, forever mocking her fictional husband “Fang.” Bob Hope spotted her and helped her get breakout TV slots on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and Jack Paar’s Tonight Show.
Like Hope, said The New York Times, Diller had a “hard-hitting approach to one-liners.” Her rapid-fire wit made her a TV natural, and she soon became a regular on game, variety, and talk shows. So believable were her tales about Fang and his mother, “Moby Dick,” that when she divorced Diller in 1965 his family sued her for defamation. She insisted the characters were fictional, and eventually settled out of court. “Fang is permanent in my act,” she said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary.”
Diller’s ugly-duckling looks became a staple of her act, said the Associated Press, “and she did everything she could to accentuate them—negatively.” She shopped for garish dresses and cartoonish wigs to use in her act. In real life, she was not so grotesque—in fact, when she posed nude for Playboy as a gag, the magazine ended up not using the photos after deciding she looked too good to be funny.
Diller’s success in the “male-dominated world of stand-up comedy” was a watershed, said the Los Angeles Times, paving the way for comedians such as Joan Rivers and Ellen DeGeneres. But she’ll be remembered most for her self-deprecating one-liners. “I spent seven hours today at the beauty parlor,” went one favorite. “Hell, that was just for the estimate.”