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.