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Humorist Phyllis Diller dies at 95 in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES: Phyllis Diller, the housewife turned humorist who aimed some of her sharpest barbs at herself, punctuating her jokes with her trademark cackle, died Monday in her Los Angeles home at age 95.  “She died peacefully in her sleep and with a smile on her face,” her longtime manager, Milton Suchin, told AP.

The cause of Diller’s death has not been released.

She was a staple of nightclubs and television from the 1950s – when female comics were rare indeed – until her retirement in 2002. Diller built her standup act around the persona of the corner-cutting housewife (“I bury a lot of my ironing in the back yard”) with bizarre looks, a wardrobe to match and a husband named “Fang.”

“Onstage comes something that, by its own description, looks like a sackful of doorknobs,” Time magazine wrote in 1961. “With hair dyed by Alcoa, pipe-cleaner limbs and knees just missing one another when the feet are wide apart, this is not Princess Volupine. It is Phyllis Diller ... only successful female among the New Wave comedians and one of the few women funny and tough enough to belt out a ‘standup’ of one-line gags.”

“I was one of those life-of-the-party types,” Diller told AP in 1965. “You’ll find them in every bridge club, at every country club. People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs. They still do.”

She didn’t get into comedy until she was nearly 40, after her first husband, Sherwood Diller, prodded her for two years to give up a career as an ad and radio writer and busy mother.

A Chicago Tribune columnist, describing her appearance at a nightspot there in 1958 hailed her as “the weirdest, wildest yet” – and made sure to mention her five youngsters.

Through two marriages and other relationships, the foibles of “Fang” remained an integral part of her act.

“Fang is permanent in the act, of course,” Diller once said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary.”

She also appeared in movies, including “Eight on the Lam” with Bob Hope.

In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”

Standup comedy was her first love, and when she broke into the business in 1956 it was a field she had largely to herself because female comics weren’t widely accepted then.

Her looks were a frequent comic topic, and she did everything she could to accentuate them – negatively. She wore outrageous fright wigs and deliberately shopped for stage shoes that made her legs look as skinny as possible.

“The older I get, the funnier I get,” she said in 1961. “Think what I’ll save in not having my face lifted.”

She felt different about plastic surgery later, though, and her face, and other body parts, underwent remarkable transformation, becoming a mainstay of her act.

Commenting in 1995 about the repainting of the Hollywood sign, she cracked, “It took 300 gallons, almost as much as I put on every morning.” She said her home “used to be haunted, but the ghosts haven’t been back since the night I tried on all my wigs.”

She recovered from a 1999 heart attack but finally retired in 2002, saying age was making it hard to spend several weeks a year on the road.

After retiring from standup, Diller continued to take occasional small parts in movies and television and pursued painting as a serious hobby. She published her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” in 2005. The 2006 film “Goodnight, We Love You” documented her career.

Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, she married Sherwood Diller right out of school and was a housewife for several years before getting outside work.

She made her network TV debut as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.” Asked if she was married, Diller replied, “Yes, I’ve worn a wedding ring for 18 years.”

“Really?” Marx said, “Well, two more payments and it’ll be all yours.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 22, 2012, on page 16.

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