Friday, September 28, 2012
a cackling comedienne worth remembering.
on the stage, phyllis diller was
the wicked witch of the west's clown-ified cousin:
blond fright-wig hair, long cigarette holder [never lit; she was a lifelong nonsmoker],
short, shapeless, psychedelically colored dresses,
bird legs punctuated by short, cuffed boots,
& a cackling laugh that could give you an involuntary eye twitch.
off the stage, phyllis diller was
a loving mother of five, an intellectual, a concert pianist,
an accomplished painter, a green-thumbed gardener & a gourmet cook.
but that persona didn't get laughs.
so, with her famous facade intact, phyllis led the way
for female comedians in the male-dominated world of stand-up,
using a fictionalized domestic life as fodder:
a good-for-nothing, drunken husband named "fang;"
an overweight & overbearing mother-in-law known as "moby dick;"
an unhappy sex life; lackluster homemaking skills; & naturally, her lousy looks.
diller believed attractive women wouldn't be taken seriously in comedy,
so she deliberately made herself as unattractive as possible.
the uglier, the funnier, she thought.
then she caustically mocked herself & the characters she created
with a series of slicing, staccato one-liners —
a comic style inspired by her mentor, bob hope.
phyllis ada driver was born in lima, ohio on july 7, 1917,
the only child of an insurance salesman in his 50s & a housewife in her 30s.
phyllis performed in high-school stage productions
& seriously studied classical piano; following graduation,
she went to chicago to study at the sherwood music conservatory,
but transferred to bluffton college in ohio to become a music teacher.
her senior year, phyllis eloped with navy man sherwood diller.
eventually, the dillers settled out in san francisco & had six children,
but one son died in infancy.
phyllis began accepting copywriting jobs for a department store & radio station
in order to provide her big family with a little financial help,
& it became clearer & clearer that she had a gift for making people laugh.
her husband encouraged phyllis to pursue comedy as a career,
but she lacked the confidence to do it — until she read a self-help book,
the magic of believing by claude bristol.
its message of empowerment spurred phyllis to begin writing routines,
to hire a drama coach to her develop more stage presence,
& to accept whatever performing opportunities arose, paid or not.
the former homemaker & copywriter officially launched her show-biz career
in 1955 at the age of 37. she began doing stand-up in nightclubs,
but was soon sought for tv show guest spots.
phyllis went on to star in a couple of tv sitcoms, a few tv specials,
a one-woman show @ carnegie hall, & several movies,
some of which were with her friend hope.
phyllis briefly played the lead role in hello, dolly! on broadway.
during the 1970s, she performed as a serious piano soloist with
about 100 different symphonies across the country.
in las vegas in 2002, phyllis did her last stand-up gig,
but she continued to do voiceover work & make tv appearances.
over the years, she also authored several books, including
her 2006 autobiography, like a lampshade in a whorehouse.
phyllis & sherwood were married 26 years. the same year they divorced,
she wed actor warde donovan; that marriage lasted 10 years.
phyllis never wed again, but was the companion of lawyer
robert hastings from the mid-80s until his 1996 death.
despite her belief that pretty isn't comedy, phyllis indulged in
over a dozen cosmetic operations, which she of course lambasted herself for:
three facelifts, two nose jobs, cheek implants, a chemical peel,
a breast reduction, tattooed eyeliner & bonded teeth.
she kept a plastic-surgery resume which she handed over to whoever might request it.
but she also kept a fit, trim physique beneath her gaudy costumes.
in fact, she once posed nude for a playboy photo spread, but the photos —
intended for laughs — looked too good to be funny, & so, were never published.
phyllis died august 20th at her los angeles home.
her youngest, perry, discovered her dead in her bed,
with a smile on her face. she was 95yo.
two of her five grown children went before her —
her eldest, peter, died in 1998 at 58yo of cancer, &
her youngest daughter, stephanie, died in 2002 at 54yo of stroke.
phyllis leaves behind her son perry,
her daughter sally [who suffers from schizophrenia],
another daughter, suzanne, four grandchildren & a great-granddaughter.
she also leaves a legacy of stand-up comedy for women
that will be followed by generations of funny ladies still to come.
cackle on, phyllis. heaven can use an edge.