Legendary Comedienne

Aug 212012

Phyllis Diller was well-loved and respected by the entertainment industry. Highly intelligent, sharp and witty writer, multi-talented, renowned for her work ethic, she did it her way and all the way to the top at a time when there were no female comediennes.

Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller in 1969 performance

Phyllis Diller was born on July 17, 1917 in Lima, Ohio. She studied the piano at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago and then continued at the Bluffton College in Ohio. It was there that she begun writing humorous material for the school’s newspaper and it was there that she met Sherwood Diller and fell in love. Shortly after, she dropped out of college; the two married and eventually had six children (one of them died early). With her domestic and motherly duties, Phyllis had no time to entertain professional ambitions. The times however were tough; World War II was on, the family moved from place to place following Sherwood Diller jobs and didn’t fare well when he couldn’t find employment. When the Diller family moved to San Francisco, Phyllis started working to help support the family. She held a few jobs writing advertising copy for a department store and in a radio station’s marketing and advertising department. Through thick and thin however Phyllis maintained her sense of humor; her friends and her husband noticed it and encouraged her to try her skills. She did – at 37 and with five kids to tend to – two or three times (at the radio station where she worked; to benefit Red Cross and at the Purple Onion club). The latter became Phyllis Diller’s breakthrough (her two week original engagement led to a record-breaking one and half year stint that established her as a brilliant stand up comic.) and as they say, the rest is history.

Phyllis Diller was launched into stardom with an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. She was an instant hit on television. Diller was a frequent guest on top TV talk shows of the time. Later, she became even more popular, appearing in Bob Hopes TV specials (she took part in Bob Hope USO tour in Vietnam as well); making appearances on Dean Martin’s roasts and such shows as “Laugh-In”; “The Hollywood Squares” and “The Gong Show”. She’s made two attempts at her own TV series (“The Phyllis Diller Show” in 1966 and “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” in 1968); the fact that neither one was long lived didn’t faze her.
She appeared in several movies and on stage. Phyllis fulfilled her dream of performing as a pianist as well: she toured the country performing with nearly hundred symphony orchestras. Still, she continued to blossom in comedy club setting and on television; she participated in many TV projects until 2009.

Frustrated with her appearance, Phyllis Diller created an outrageous on-stage persona. (Overtime she underwent several plastic surgeries and spoke about them candidly and was one of the first celebrities to do so.) Extra-ordinarily gifted as a comedic writer, she became known for delivering multiple punch lines at a record speed. Finally, the angle of her material – from family issues to self-deprecation – delivered without a shade of self pity and with her one of a kind, distinctive laugh, made her an icon.

Phyllis Diller earned many recognitions, including a Star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has also authored a book, her autobiography.

Unlike her career, her personal life had its ups and downs. Her first marriage (to Sherwood Diller) didn’t last. Her second (to actor, Warde Donovan) lasted mere 9 weeks. Phyllis lost three of her six children. In 1986 however she found true love with a lawyer, Robert Hastings. They never married but were together for10 years, until his death.

If you’re very young you may not understand the phenomenon of Phyllis Diller. She wasn’t just another comedienne with a longer career than most. She was the pioneer who made the careers of other female comediennes possible. (Joan Rivers has begun her career by writing jokes for Phyllis Diller.) Today’s female comedy stars like Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr, Tina Fey and others are traveling the trail blasted by Phyllis Diller.

Phyllis Diller had a long, rich, productive and accomplished life. Ourselves, we remember Phyllis Diller – whom we’ve met during a brief interview for Cultural Events in Los Angeles  – for her generosity, intellect and passion for youth and education.

In spite of her age, Phyllis Diller’s death caught us by surprise. She died but was loved by many and will be remembered for a long time to come. May she rest in peace – and to paraphrase Henry Winkler – she will make even God laugh…