Wythe County, Va., Aug. 23, 2012 – It is not often a person can claim to be the first of anything admirable, much less the first successful female stand up comic. Phyllis Diller can claim this honor, all accomplished while sharing the stage with such comedic giants as Bob Hope and Don Rickles.
Before Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, or Kathy Griffin there was the zany housewife turned comedienne Phyllis Diller breaking barriers and blazing trails for all those to come.
Born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio, she was the only child of Perry Driver, an insurance executive, and the former Frances Ada Romshe.
After high school she briefly attended the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago, then she entered Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, near Lima, studying to become a music teacher. She met Sherwood Anderson Diller in her senior year, and they were married in 1939.
Shortly after marrying, they moved to California and started a family. Diller had 6 children, (one died in infancy) and a chronically unemployed husband, all of which became fodder for her stand up act.
Even working full time Diller was still faced with poverty, which became the primary motivation for seeking a career in the male dominated field of stand up comedy. Her husband suggested she should be paid for making people laugh.
First relating stories to fellow poor housewives at the Laundromat, she soon realized she had a flair for comedy that could take her beyond the Laundromat and into stardom.
To hone her skills in the beginning of her career, she took any paid or unpaid performance jobs offered; including PTA meetings, women’s clubs, and hospitals. In 1955, while working as a journalist for the San Leandro News-Observer, Diller appeared on Groucho Marx’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.”
This appearance, combined with increased public exposure locally, led to her first official attempt at stand up at The Purple Onion Comedy Club in San Francisco, where she knocked it out of the park with her rapid one-liners and over the top persona.
This was followed by bookings at night clubs all across the country, and in 1958 she began making regular appearances on Jack Parr’s “Tonight Show.” The rest, as they say, is history. For the next 5 decades she regaled stand up audiences everywhere, until her official retirement in 2002.
Her comedy routine was a reflection of her own self liberation, focusing on anecdotes and one-liners about the woes of being a housewife, and her husband “Fang”. She also made regular reference to her mother-in-law Moby Dick; and her sister-in-law Captain Bligh, a fact not appreciated by either. After divorcing Sherwood Diller in 1965, his mother and sister both sued Ms. Diller for defamation of character and later settled out of court.
She made self deprecating remarks about her appearance a big part of her routine, all while indulging freely and openly in the magic of plastic surgery. Rather than hide this fact, it soon became part of her act as well.
Less known is Phyllis Diller’s career as an accomplished pianist. Throughout the 70’s and early 80’s she performed with 100 symphony orchestras under the stage name Dame Illya Dillya.
As if her already hectic life were not enough, she also went on to author 4 best selling books for Double day, including her 2005 autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy.”
Her days in the spotlight have long past, but a quick cruise through youtube will refamiliarize the viewer with her signature cackle, her unique comedic style, and her now iconic metallic dresses and crazy fly away hair.
Yet another baby boomer entertainer has passed, making heaven more entertaining with each passing.
Rest in Peace Phyllis Diller, you are in good company.
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