In 1968, Phyllis Diller gave me my first job in show business as a junior writer on the staff of her short-lived TV show “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”
Terrified as I was to write for her, the moment I met Phyllis, I felt very comfortable. She was funny, smart and incredibly kind. She would come into the room where we all were gathered — a room full of young male comedy writers, and me — and patiently explain to us what jokes she was using and why, what jokes didn’t work, and how we could fix them. I didn’t realize it then, but I was lucky enough to be a participant in a master class.
Working for Phyllis those few short weeks — we were cancelled three days after I arrived — was my first experience working for and with a celebrity. She was extraordinarily nice and extraordinarily open. (Unfortunately, she gave me the wrong impression about celebrities.)
When she found out that I wanted to be an entertainer, she was beyond generous in her mentoring. She told me many things about performing during those weeks, things that I have never forgotten. If you wanted to be successful as a stand-up, she told me, you had to have a different, unique point of view. “Figure out who you are, what makes you stand out from the others,” she counseled. “The minute you know that, your comedy will fall into place. You will be able to make people laugh at things that others can’t.”
When Phyllis died on Monday, we lost a woman who paved the way not only for me but for just about all other female comedians. She did this by building the first bridge between old ideas and new ones about what a female comedian should be. In the era when Phyllis started performing, all female comedians had to look funny to be considered funny. If you were pretty, you were automatically a singer. And all the ladies that came before her fitted into this mold. Fanny Brice was cross-eyed, Totie Fields heavy, Jean Carroll — a major schlep. Women were just not allowed to be funny and beautiful.
Although in her private life Phyllis was tall, good-looking and extremely chic, she sacrificed this for her art. She picked a look that was expected and dressed in the ridiculous boots, outrageous dresses and semi-frightening wigs that became her signature.
But what was not expected from Phyllis — and what broke the rules — was what this clownish woman did when she came on stage. She simply walked out, stood in front of a microphone and talked for an hour. There was no music, no songs, no juggling, no silly dances — none of the things that female comedians were expected to do in their acts. Phyllis just stood there like a man and said smart, funny things. Today, the idea of a woman coming out on stage and simply talking is absolutely accepted. But in those days, it was shocking.
Just as people say Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels, Phyllis Diller was the first female comedian to do everything that Jack Benny and Henny Youngman did, only she did it faster and smarter and maybe even funnier.
In the early 1980s, we were often headlining in Las Vegas at the same time, and we would meet for supper after our shows. I always went to pick her up and was always impressed that Phyllis had candles and flowers and pictures of famous stars in her dressing room. It looked like it was part of a set of an MGM movie. It was a star’s dressing room. That’s exactly what Phyllis was — a star. And she enjoyed every moment of it.
No, that’s not exactly right. She didn’t enjoy every moment of it, she relished it, basked in it, adored the perks that it brought and the people it allowed her to meet. Because she had started her career rather late in her life, at age 37, she appreciated all the finer things she was now able to enjoy and was never unaware of her good fortune.
What I also admired about Phyllis was that she was a worker. She never sat back with a “finished” act. She was always adding to it, changing it and updating it. Whenever I went to see her, she always had brand-new jokes based on the headlines of that very day. She missed nothing and commented brilliantly on everything.
As she grew older, Phyllis found the constant traveling too difficult, so she retired from live performing. In the years that followed, she made guest appearances now and then, but I never thought it was enough for her. Did she miss it? She never mentioned it. Probably she did, but she began filling her time with friends, painting — which she adored — and of course her superb classical piano playing, which astonished so many of us.
I saw Phyllis for the last time a little over a month ago, when my daughter Melissa and I were guests at her home for brunch. As always, she was dressed impeccably. We all sat and talked about our lives, our families, our careers and of course the latest comedians who were coming up — who was good and who was bad — the usual things that friends talk about. Every once in a while, she would say something and then stop and say: “No, no, no. I said that wrong. Wouldn’t it be funnier if I said it this way, don’t you think?” And of course she would change her words and she was right. Just as she had been right years ago in the writers’ room.
Luckily that day, Melissa and I decided to bring my 11-year-old grandson, Cooper. As we were getting ready, we tried to explain to him exactly who Phyllis was. Melissa kept saying, “She’s a very famous lady, so smart and so funny.” I added my two cents: “Not only is she smart and funny, but if it weren’t for her, Grandma wouldn’t be working. Mommy wouldn’t be working. And you know what that means?”
“You’d have to get real jobs,” Cooper said, and made a face. “And we’d have no fun.”
So Phyllis, my dear friend, I’d like to end this by partially stealing a line from George M. Cohan. Phyllis, my daughter thanks you, I thank you, and my grandson — once he figures out the debt we owe you — thanks you (for his iPhone).
Joan Rivers is the host of E’s “Fashion Police” and the author of “I Hate Everyone . . . Starting With Me.” The third season of her reality show “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” will air this winter on WE tv.