Comedian Phyllis Diller dead at 95

Phyllis Diller, the cackling comedian with electric-shock hair who built an influential career in film and nightclubs with stand-up routines that mocked irascible husbands, domestic drudgery and her extensive plastic surgery, died August 20 at her home in Brentwood, Calif. She was 95.
Her manager (Milton Suchin) confirmed the death but said he did not know the cause.
Although there has been a long history of comic actresses, Ms. Diller was among the first to tackle the male preserve of stand-up comedy. She used her first husband for comedic fodder by disguising him as a fictitious character named “Fang.” Her jokes — roasts of Fang’s drinking habits, sexual shortcomings and professional failures — reversed traditional household roles. She once said: “His finest hour lasted a minute and a half.”
Ms. Diller also joked that, much to her chagrin, he was her manager. She complained that he “couldn’t sell Windex to a Peeping Tom.”

Comedian Phyllis Diller dead at 95
Phyllis Diller.

Some of the most promising talent in show business was on the bill one day and night in 1955 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion: Eartha Kitt and Alice Ghostley; Paul Lynde and Robert Clary; a singer and dancer with the stage name Maya Angelou, and an eccentric former housewife, a few years older than her fellow performers, with the married name Phyllis Diller.
Angelou’s family, including two small children (Clyde and Joyce), were seated in the front row. Years later, she would remember watching Diller and wondering how her guests would respond to her friend’s “aura of madness”.
“Black people rarely forgave whites for being ragged, unkempt and uncaring. There was a saying which explained the disapproval: ‘You been white all your life. Ain’t got no further along than this? What ails you?’” Angelou wrote in “Singin’ and Swingin’ and ‘Getting Merry Like Christmas’,” a memoir published in 1976.
“When Phyllis came on stage Clyde almost fell off the chair and Joyce nearly knocked over her Shirley Temple. The comedienne, dressed outrageously and guffawing like a hiccoughing horse and a bell clapper, chose to play to the two children. They were charmed and so convulsed they gasped for breath.”
The housewife soon became a star.
“AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!”
Diller, the cackling template for Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and so many others, died in her Los Angeles home at age 95. She faced the end, fittingly, “with a smile on her face” – said longtime manager Milton Suchin.

Ms. Diller, who became famous for telling jokes that mocked her odd looks, her aversion to housekeeping and a husband she called Fang, was far from the first woman to do stand-up comedy. But she was one of the most influential. There were precious few women before her, if any, who could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or overpower an audience with such an outrageous personality.
One chestnut – “I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they’d boo.”
Another – “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’ ”
Ms. Diller, a 37-year-old homemaker when she took up comedy, mined her domestic life for material, assuring audiences that she fed Fang and her kids garbage soup and buried her ironing in the backyard. She exuded an image that was part Wicked Witch of the West – a role she actually played in a St. Louis stage production of “The Wizard of Oz” – and part clown.
In her many television appearances she would typically sashay onstage wearing stiff, outsize, hideous metallic dresses (she did this, she said, so she could lie to her audiences about the state of her body, which was really trim and shapely); high-heeled shoes or boots studded with rhinestones; and a bejeweled collar better suited to a junkyard dog or a fur scarf that she claimed was made from an animal she had trapped under the sink.
Slinking along on skinny legs, her feet invariably pointed outward, penguin-style, she originally carried a long bejeweled cigarette holder that held a make-believe cigarette from which she continually flicked imaginary ashes. Ms. Diller, who did not smoke, later discarded the cigarette holder.
Her hair was the blond flyaway variety, sometimes looking as if it was exploding from her scalp; her eyes were large and ferocious, her nose thin and overlong – she ultimately tamed it through plastic surgery. And then there was that unforgettable, ear-shattering voice, which would frequently explode into a sinister cackle that seemed perfectly matched to her image as the ultimate domestic demon.

Leave a Reply