Phyllis Diller, comedian, dies at 95

August 20, 2012

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 Aug. 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.”

Pacing the stage, she spoke grumpily about her unhappy sex life (like bouncing on a trampoline, she said), her lackluster kitchen skills (though she boasted of her recipe for “garbage soup”) and her struggle to keep up with totems of sexual and domestic bliss (Marilyn Monroe and Donna Reed, respectively).

“Would you believe that I once entered a beauty contest?” she said. “I must have been out of my mind. I not only came in last, I got 361 get-well cards.”

Susan Horowitz, a stand-up comic and author of the 1997 book “Queens of Comedy,” called Ms. Diller a significant figure in American culture who rose to success through her wickedly self-mocking style.

“The self-deprecation made her more endearing, more comfortable for people,” Horowitz said. “Everything she did was for the purpose of getting ahead.”

Ms. Diller’s comedic cadence — a series of staccato one-liners — was strategically crafted. Following in the groove of her mentor, Bob Hope, she rhythmically fired off punch lines on top of one another so the jokes built a momentum.

In a typical rant about her mother-in-law, whom she often called “Moby Dick,” Ms. Diller laid on the ridicule line by line.

She described her in-law’s dress size as “junior missile.” Ms. Diller continued: “She went swimming off the coast of Florida, three Navy planes identified her as Cuba.” Her in-law was so large, Ms. Diller said, that once a month she was “shoved through the Holland Tunnel to clean it.”

Flicking her cigarette, Ms. Diller delivered the final snickering blow: “If you get in an elevator with her, well, you’d better be going down.”

Ms. Diller’s stage appearance was ghastly — and highly calculated. Operating under the belief that attractive women could not be taken seriously in comedy, she wore shapeless, short dresses, allowing her to poke fun at her flat chest (she claimed to be the only woman in America with two backs) and her toothpick “bird legs.”

Clownlike and outlandish, she accessorized with long velvet gloves and calf-length boots. She dyed her hair platinum blond (“to reflect light,” she said) and teased it into an Einstein-like frenzy, feeding her persona of a crazed, incompetent ugly ducking. She later wore a collection of outrageous wigs. The uglier the funnier, she said.

“Comedy is aggressive,” Ms. Diller once explained. “That’s why men used to hate women comics. That’s why there weren’t any. . . . Women are not supposed to be bright, and there’s no such thing as a dumb comic.”

Offstage, Ms. Diller was known as an intellectual, an artist, a gourmet cook and, at times, a flirt. Over the years, she caught the attention of many men, two of whom became husbands.

A former homemaker and radio station copywriter, Ms. Diller entered show business at 37 in part to support her growing family. She made her stand-up debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub in 1955, drawing largely from her early classical piano training by parodying the purring chanteuse Eartha Kitt.

When the initial audience response was tepid, Ms. Diller refined her act until her stage persona was perfected, cutting out the musical routines when her monologues proved more successful. She carried an unlit cigarette holder on stage because she said it gave her “an excuse to hold up one hand . . . an attention-getter.”

After establishing herself on the comedy club circuit, she deepened her popularity with appearances on TV programs including Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life” and Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” in the late 1950s. She had a one-woman show at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1962 and starred in several films with Hope, including “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” (1966) and “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell” (1968).

She appeared as salty nightclub hostess Texas Guinan in the film drama “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and starred in the ABC sitcom “The Pruitts of Southampton” (later renamed “The Phyllis Diller Show”) in 1966 and 1967.

Her distinctive vocal qualities brought her work through the 1990s and 2000s, notably as the voice of Thelma Griffin, the chain-smoking, gambling mother of Peter Griffin, a central character on the animated Fox sitcom “Family Guy.”

Phyllis Ada Driver was born in Lima, Ohio, on July 7, 1917. Her father was an insurance salesman in his 50s and her mother was a housewife 20 years his junior. For that era, her parents were unusually old to start a family, and Phyllis was their only child.

Ms. Diller said she felt emotionally distant from them. “When I was kidnapped,” she later joked, “they wouldn’t pay the ransom — they didn’t want to break a 10.”

While in high school, she participated in stage productions and studied classical piano.

She studied at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago before transferring to Bluffton College in Ohio with the hope of being a teacher.

In her senior year, she eloped with a fellow student, Sherwood Diller, who came from a wealthy Bluffton family. They eventually settled in San Francisco and, in time, had six children, one of whom died in infancy.

To augment the family income, Ms. Diller began taking copywriting jobs for an Oakland department store and radio station. On the side, she discovered she had a talent for making her friends and neighbors at PTA meetings giggle as she joked about her harried domestic life.

Although her husband encouraged her growing interest in stand-up comedy, she said it was chiefly for financial stability. In the 1950s, a self-help book called “The Magic of Believing” spurred her to pursue a new career.

Her marriages to Diller and actor Warde Donovan ended in divorce. Two children from her first marriage died, Peter Diller in 1998 and Stephanie Diller in 2002. Survivors include three children from her first marriage, Perry Diller, Sally Diller and Suzanne Mills, all of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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.”