Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Phyllis Diller: 1917-2012

Phyllis Diller
When I was a little kid in Boston in the early 1960s, before I really understood the adult dimensions of her humor, Phyllis Diller was one of my favorite comedians.

This was probably because she was one of the first folks I knew to transmute curmudgeonliness into outrageous, self-deprecatory humor. My patron saint, in other words.

As the New York Times wrote yesterday, "The Laughs Were on Her, by Design."

In those late-patriarchal times, we still used the word comedienne for female comics, as though what they did was some how different. Phyllis was one of the first to break through the "laughter ceiling" bigtime. As a future ex-closeted homo, I appreciated her disruption of the gender barriers without knowing why.

Here is a 1986 interview with Phyllis by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. A saint, as I said.

As Gross says, "Onstage, she called her husband Fang. Diller told Fang jokes like her male counterparts told wife jokes."

PHYLLIS DILLER: Fang, I got to tell you something else. The other night he was reading the obituaries and he said, isn't it just amazing how people die in alphabetical order.


DILLER: One of the kids asked him to spell Mississippi. He said the river or the state?


DILLER: I asked him to lower the thermostat. He put it six inches above the floor.


DILLER: His father told him to ride bareback. He took off his pants.


DILLER: He thinks a Royal flush is the john at Buckingham Palace.


DILLER: I told him we had a leak in the gas pipe. He put a pan under it.


DILLER: And now he's become paranoid and I know exactly how it happened. He went to the mall, went up to the map and the map said you are here. He wants to know how they knew.

Here's an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show:

A closely guarded secret: Phyllis Diller was actually beautiful.

As Yael Cohn writes:

But in order to tell a joke like a man, she had to de-sex herself. And that’s where the self-deprecating humor came in.

“To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audi­ence. So right away, you come out and kiss ass,” she told me.

“The reason I devel­oped things like [wearing a bag dress] was because I had such a great figure...I had ’em convinced that underneath whatever I was wearing, I was a skeleton, an ugly skeleton — and that’s what I wanted....

“All I worked for was the laughs.”
Bless her.

A former colleague of mine responded to this post with a story from her teenage years, which she has given me permission to add here [in slightly edited form]:

In the early 60s, Phyllis Diller moved her family from Ohio to Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. She had six children who were all teenagers or older at the time. I went to school with two of them. One was a year older and one, a year younger.

Everyone thought that the Dillers, Pyllis in particular, were very exotic, and we were in awe of them.

Rumors abounded that their house—in a fairly middle class part of the town—was decorated in a very outrageous manner. Rose covered wallpaper on the ceiling in the living room, white upholstered furniture with wild, flowered pillows everywhere, tons of pink everything...etc.

Remember, this was the 1960s in a small area of the Midwest, a middle/upper middle class, Republican-all-the-way kind of place. At that time, my high school was third in the country for graduating and sending kids off to colleges of high esteem, and on to big things. In other words, this was a pretty no nonsense kind of place, that prided itself on being the Rockwell picture for fulfilling the American Dream.

So…it was exciting to have someone who was outspoken and different.

One year, I think my junior year, the school administration thought it would be prestigious to ask Phyllis to perform at a school assembly for the students.

Well, Phyllis, being Phyllis, brought her "A" game, straight from Vegas. Her jokes were probably meant for a much older crowd, and she was allowed to finish but hustled off the stage as quickly as the embarrassed administration could do so.

The Dillers moved to Los Angeles a year or two later, and our claim to fame faded away as if it had never happened. I still remember, though, how exciting it was from a teenager's viewpoint, while it lasted.


G said...

Nice post Mike. You might enjoy this video:
"Phyllis Diller on the Ed Sullivan Show"

Mike Shell said...

Thanks, Greg. I've embedded the video in the post.