Remembering Phyllis Diller: Stand-Up Comedy Pioneer

She burst through the sex barrier, and could reel off gag lines with the best of the boys

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The braying laugh “was the real thing,” she said, “and I’ve had it all my life.” But nearly everything else about Phyllis Diller onstage was an affectation, almost a throwback to the vaudeville era: the blonde fright-wig hair, the garish outfits, the jeweled cigarette holder (even the cigarette was fake; she didn’t smoke). It was what a woman had to do to get noticed in the world of stand-up comedy in the 1950s and ’60s, a world as thoroughly dominated by men as the Augusta National Golf Club.

Her material, too, was geared to the old male stereotypes, and maybe women’s own low opinion of themselves in the Mad Men era. She poked relentless fun at her own looks, her haplessness as a housewife, her ineptitude in bed. “I love to go to the doctor,” she cracked. “Where else would a man look at me and say, ‘Take off your clothes’?” Or: “I once had a peek-a-boo blouse. People would peek, and then they’d boo.” Or: “I do dinner in three phases. Serve the food, clear the table, bury the dead.”

The rat-a-tat gag lines were definitely old-school, but Phyllis Diller, who died on Monday at age 95, was a pioneer nonetheless. There were other female stand-ups at the time — the “blue” comedy of Rusty Warren, the sophisticated ironies of Jean Carroll — but Diller was the first to achieve front-rank stardom. For much of a decade — until younger comics like Joan Rivers and Totie Fields came along, colonizing the territory she opened up — she had the field almost entirely to herself. “I became the genre,” she said in later years. And she was right.

(MORETIME’s 1961 take on Phyllis Diller)

She was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, studied music at a conservatory in Chicago, and went to Bluffton College in Ohio. At 22 she married Sherwood Diller and raised five children with him. They moved frequently for his jobs, first to Michigan, where he worked at an aircraft plant during World War II, and then to the San Francisco Bay Area. He was selling appliances at Sears, Roebuck, when Phyllis went to work, writing funny ad copy for radio stations. Encouraged by friends, she worked up a night club act, and, at age 38, got herself booked at the Purple Onion, the popular folk-era club. Her engagement there lasted for a year and a half and launched her career.

Initially, her act was heavily laced with music — spoofs of Eartha Kitt, novelty numbers like “I’d Rather Cha-Cha Than Eat.” But soon she found her real métier, making jokes about her home life, her bad driving and a husband whom she nicknamed “Fang.” One phone call to him: “I said, ‘Hello, I’ve had a little accident at the corner of Post and Geary.’ And he said, ‘Post and Geary don’t cross.’ And I said, ‘They do now.’”

(MOREPhyllis Diller tells TIME how she got her start)

She made her first national TV appearance as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. But soon she was getting legit TV gigs on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, and playing top-notch night clubs like Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago and the Blue Angel in New York. By the early ’60s, she became a popular fixture on Ed Sullivan and other TV variety shows, had a one-woman show at Carnegie Hall, and made her movie debut playing saloon proprietor Texas Guinan in Splendor in the Grass.

She was appearing at a Washington, D.C., dive called the Lotus Club, when Bob Hope first saw her. She thought she bombed, but he sought her out after the show. “I’m trying to sneak out — I wasn’t even starring at this toilet — and he jumped up and ran over and told me that I was great,” she recalled. It was the start of a lifelong professional attachment; Diller became a frequent guest on Hope’s TV specials, traveled with him to Vietnam in 1966, and co-starred with him in three movies. (She even kept an oil painting of Hope in the living room of her Brentwood, Calif., home.)

She never had a hit TV show, though she tried: co-starring in the sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton (later retitled The Phyllis Diller Show) and a variety series, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, that ran for 15 weeks in the fall of 1968.  But she continued to make the rounds of TV variety shows, was a top draw in night clubs and even, for a short stint, starred on Broadway, one of Carol Channing’s many successors as the lead in Hello Dolly!

(STUDY: Who’s Funnier, Men or Women?)

In her later years she spruced up her looks with plastic surgery — which she never shied away from acknowledging, or making jokes about. “There are no two parts of my body the same age,” she cracked. She extended her career with voiceovers in animated movies (A Bug’s Life) and TV shows like Family Guy, and finally got around to penning an autobiography in 2005. She called it Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. Like so much about Phyllis Diller — except for her impact on stand-up comedy — it was an overstatement.