Phyllis Diller: Remembering the first female stand-up comedian

August 21, 2012

Phyllis Diller, the silver-tongued comedienne who saved some of her sharpest barbs for herself, died Aug. 20 at the age of 95. She’ll be remembered for blazing a trail for female stand-up comedians, who tweeted their remembrances of her. According to the Associated Press:

She wasn’t the first woman to crack jokes on stage; Gracie Allen had been getting laughs for decades playing dumb for George Burns. But Diller was among the first who didn’t need a man around. The only guy in her act was a husband named Fang, who was never seen and didn’t exist.

“Please recognize she paved the way single handedly for years for us female comedians,” wrote Griffin on Twitter.

The Friars Club released a statement Monday noting that in 1988 Diller was among the first women admitted — legitimately. A few years earlier, she had snuck in for a Sid Caesar roast, dressed as a man.

Though Diller often made self-deprecating jokes about her appearance and about being a housewife, she was a feminist icon. As she said in 1980:

“Women's liberation is never going to change relationships between men and women. . . I'm a third-generation career girl, so I've always been liberated and I take it for granted. And I like being a woman.”

A former homemaker and copywriter, Diller found fame at a late-for-Hollywood age: 37. She amplified her already-outrageous persona with wild costumes, wigs and surgical enhancements. According to Megan Buerger’s obituary for the Post:

Ms. Diller indulged in more than a dozen plastic surgeries, which she discussed candidly in her comedy routines. “When I die, God won’t know me,” she joked. “There are no two parts of my body the same age. If I have one more facelift, it’ll be a cesarean.”

The title of her 2006 autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” came from a comic routine about her clothes: “You think I’m overdressed? This is my slip. . . . I used to work as a lampshade at a whorehouse. I couldn’t get one of the good jobs.”

Ms. Diller’s exaggerated character became a humorous protest of the housewife ideal and echoed the frustrations of many American wives. She offered something to women that male comics could not. Relief.

“The only thing domestic about me is that I was born in this country,” she once joked. “I serve dinner in three phases: serve the food, clear the table, bury the dead.”

She’ll be remembered by her famous one-liners, the best of which were compiled by Alexandra Petri. Here are a few:

“Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.” — Housekeeping Hints, 1966

“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.” — Housekeeping Hints, 1966

To Ronald Reagan: “If you ever get to be president, and I think you may, and there's a depression— try not to have it at a bad time, like when everybody's out of work.”

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