Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Late Great Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller, the legendary comic with a self deprecating sense of humour, died yesterday at the age of 95. While she was hardly the first woman to ever do stand up comedy, she was definitely one of the most influential. Her career spanned six decades.

Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Driver on 17 July 1917 in Lima, Ohio. When she was young she was interested in classical music, theatre, and writing. She attended the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago for three years, then attended Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio. Her plan was to become a music teacher. While at Blufton College she met Sherwood Diller. The two married in 1939. Phyllis Diller would never teach music. Instead the couple moved to California where she went through a variety of jobs. She was an inspector at a United States Navy air station for a time and wrote a shopping column for a San Leandro, California newspaper. She also wrote advertising copy for an Oakland department store.

Although she would become one of the most legendary comics of the late 20th Century, it could be said that Mrs. Diller stumbled into a show business career by accident. She was known for injecting humour into her advertising and also known for her sense humour working in the promotions department at radio station KROW in Oakland. In November 1952 she was given her own, local, 15 minute show, Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker.  She later went to work in the promotions department of the radio station KSFO in San Francisco. From the early to mid-Fifties as Phyllis Diller's reputation as someone who was very funny spread, she began performing at parties and PTA meetings. On 7 March 1955 she made her debut as a stand up comedian at  legendary comedy club The Purple Onion in San Francisco. From there Mrs. Diller's career began to grow, as she was booked in nightclubs across the nation. It was in 1958 that she made her first national television appearance on the game show You Bet Your Life, where she proved to be a match even for the legendary Groucho Marx.

During the Sixties Phyllis Diller's career grew by leaps and bounds. She made her first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar in 1961 and appeared two more times. She would be a regular guest on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Palace, The Dean Martin Show, and The Tonight Show. She also appeared on such shows as Art Linkletter's House Party, Match Game, What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, Hollywood Squares, The Mike Douglas ShowThe Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and several Bob Hope specials. She guest starred on such shows as Batman, That's Life, Get Smart, and The Good Guys. She starred in two series of her own: the sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton and the variety show The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. Mrs. Diller would also appear in films during the Sixties. She made her movie debut in the movie Splendour in the Grass in 1961. She would go onto appear in The Fat Spy (1966), Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966), Hollywood Star Spangled Revue (1966), Eight on the Lam (1967), The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968), Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968), and The Adding Machine (1969).  She provided the voice of The Monster's Mate in Mad Monster Party (1967).

In the Seventies Mrs. Diller was a guest on such shows as This is Tom Jones, The Dick Cavett Show, The Jim Nabors Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Kraft Music Hall, The David Frost Show, The Ken Berry "Wow" Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, The Flip Wilson Show, The Gong Show, The Muppet Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah! She guest starred on such shows as The Red Skelton Show, Love American Style, CHiPS, and The Love Boat. She appeared in the film The Sunshine Boys (1977). In the Eighties she appeared on such shows as The Alan Thicke Show, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, Madame's Place, Family Feud, Match Game, Hollywood Squares, Body Language, and Super Password. She guest starred on The Jeffersons, As The World Turns, Tales from the Darkside, Glitter, Night Heat, and 227. She appeared in the films Pink Motel (1982), Doctor Hackenstein (1988), and Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog (1990).

From the Nineties into the Naughts Phyllis Diller appeared on such shows as Vicki, The Tonight Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Madtv, Pyjama Party, The Wayne Brady Show, Larry King Live, Dennis Miller, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Celebrity Ghost Stories. She guest starred on such shows as Blossom, Cybill, Boys Meets World, Diagnosis Murder, Emily of the New MoonBoston Legal, King of the Hill, The Drew Carey Show, Even Stevens, Life with Bonnie, and Family Guy. She appeared in such films as Wisecracks (1992), Peoria Babylon (1997), A Bug's Life (1998), The Debtors (1999), Everything's Jake (2000) , The Last Place on Earth (2002), Hip! Edgy! Quirky! (2002), Bitter Jester (2003), Goodnight, We Love You (2004), Motocross Kids (2004), West from North Goes South (2004), The Aristocrats (2005), Madman Muntz: American Maverick (2005), Forget About It (2006), Unbeatable Harold (2006), Knock Knock with Fred Willard (2006), Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) , Celebrity Art Show (2008), How to Live Forever (2009), When the World Breaks (2010),  I Am Comic (2010), and  Looking for Lenny (2011).

As a comedian and performer Phyllis Diller was nearly unstoppable. Her first local, television show was in 1952. Her final work was in 2011. And while many performers slow down as they get older, Phyllis Diller kept busy. Indeed, she made more movies in the Naughts than she did in the Sixties! She never retired and just kept on working.

Of course, the reason Mrs. Diller's career lasted so long and that she remained very busy throughout that career is that she was simply one of the funniest women to ever live. The strength of her humour was that it was all so believable. Phyllis Diller came across as an average housewife, talking about her husband Fang and his family, all the while talking about her dislike of housework and  poking fun at her appearance (even though in real life she actually was not a bad looking woman). Her on stage persona was someone all of us could relate to. In not taking herself seriously, she allowed us not to take ourselves seriously too. Beyond her wholly believable and sympathetic persona, Phyllis Diller was very skilled in her craft. She had such impeccable timing that she could deliver one liner after one liner and get a laugh every time. What is more, she had an incredible ability to improvise. She could come up with lines off the top of her head that the average gag writer might spend a night trying to develop.

Previous female comics had taken a more relaxed approach to comedy, but Phyllis Diller took the more animated approach of her male counterparts. Not only did this make her a match for them, but it also opened the doors for other female comedians with similar, aggressive approaches. Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, and many other female comics owe a good deal to Mrs. Diller. Not only was Phyllis Diller a very funny woman with a long career, then, but she was also a true pioneer in comedy.

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