Phyllis Diller was an original; she was funny, and she was in control.
I’m not sure what younger people make of those long-ago clips from the “Tonight Show” with Diller a court jester in funny clothes waving a cigarette holder and cackling on cue. But watching her back then, you knew that even though she was saying terrible things about her looks, her cooking and her husband, she was really, to use a more modern phrase, “building her brand” — Phyllis Diller Inc.
When she died this week at the age of 95, you could read the real story. She made her success at a time when men ruled the stand-up comedy stage, so she had to make them and the audience pay attention. She made the neighbors and the parents at the PTA laugh, but took her act public to be a breadwinner for a family that was barely making it. So she needed to be big on the big stage. The self-deprecating pose was a calculation that worked for her.
Diller wore those clothes because she had a great body and for a woman telling jokes back then, that wasn’t funny. Though jokes about her nonexistent culinary and house-keeping skills got the biggest laughs, in reality she was — to seriously use the term crafted by Roseanne Barr, a comedian she inspired — a “domestic goddess.”
As the Washington Post obituary said: “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.” Or as Barr said in a tribute on the Daily Beast: “It wasn’t until you saw her paintings or heard her play a concerto on the piano that you understood that this woman lived her life as a true artist and a revolutionary. She knew a woman’s place was not in the home, at a time when everyone on earth regurgitated that canard every minute of every day.”
Diller bombarded her audiences with joke upon joke so they couldn’t catch their breaths. It’s no wonder that so many of the R.I.P. readers’ comments include one of them. (For example, “One of my favorite Phyllis Diller quotes is ‘Cleaning your house before your kids stop growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.’”)
Everything she did, from dyeing her hair platinum to catch the light to waving that cigarette holder around, she did for a reason. She got the joke though apparently not everyone did. After she divorced her first husband, not that he was the fictional “Fang” who was the butt of many jokes, Diller insisted, his mother and sister sued to stop her from making fun of them in her routines. Diller settled out of court.
She wasn’t much for apologizing. A few years ago, I listened as she recounted her laundry list of plastic surgeries and defiantly defended her decision to make herself over, over and over again. She wanted to look a certain way, and she had the money to make it happen. Why shouldn’t she?
I had lost touch with her career until a few years ago when I watched her judge a lineup of young comics on the TV show “Last Comic Standing” as they tried to insult and impress her at a roast. They were in awe, of course. Rather than phone it in, as a comedy emeritus who had earned the right to relax, she was the sharpest and most perceptive person there — and funny. She gave each comic astute criticism, calling out lazy jokes for what they were and complimenting each bit of wit and creativity. It was impressive.
Today, men still outnumber women in the funny game. But the women who have stepped up can be as nice as Ellen DeGeneres, as nasty as Sarah Silverman, as topical as Whoopi Goldberg. Thanks in large part to Phyllis Diller, they can be themselves.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3