The world of standup comedy changed in 1955. All those years ago, a struggling 37 year-old housewife took drastic measures to support her five children and notoriously indolent husband — she walked onto the stage at San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub and never looked back. This was Phyllis Diller's introduction to professional comedy. "My husband always felt that a marriage and career don't mix. That's why he's never worked," Diller wryly observed.
The world of standup comedy changed in 1955. All those years ago, a struggling 37 year-old housewife took drastic measures to support her five children and notoriously indolent husband — she walked onto the stage at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub and never looked back. This was Phyllis Diller’s introduction to professional comedy. “My husband always felt that a marriage and career don’t mix. That’s why he’s never worked,” Diller wryly observed.
Diller died on Monday at age 95. According to her long-time friend and comedic protégé, Joan Rivers, Diller was sharp until the very end. On the CBS Morning Show, Rivers spoke of their last visit, “We exchanged necklaces. I think she got the better deal.”
Diller was masterful at getting the “better deal”; when the safe bet said she wouldn’t. In the 1950’s, standup comedy was largely the exclusive purview of men. If women performed comedy on stage, more often it was as part of a musical novelty act like the Grand Ole Opry’s Minnie Pearl or Louis Prima’s partner, Keely Smith. Not so with Diller.
She was all zingers, mostly at her own expense.
Diller who was attractive in real life, wore outrageous costumes and clownish makeup on stage. Much of her comedy centered on two themes: self-deprecation and upended domestic life.
On cooking she quipped, “I serve dinner in three phases: I serve the food. I clear the dishes. I bury the bodies.”
Then there was her fictitious husband, Fang. In reality, Diller was married to two men, but even there it wasn’t simple. As a two-time divorcee, she had plenty of material on love, marriage and divorce. Her first husband, Sherwood Anderson Diller, acted as her manager until the couple’s 26-year-year marriage fell apart in 1965. She later married, divorced, remarried and re-divorced entertainer Ward Donovan.
“Fang and I are always fighting. When we get up in the morning, we don’t kiss; we touch gloves,” was a classic Diller line on marriage.
Diller also broke barriers when she spoke openly about her numerous cosmetic surgeries. Getting old was a persistent theme in the late-bloomer’s comedic repertoire: “You know you’re old if they have discontinued your blood type.”
Of course, the less than graceful aging of others wasn’t immune to her barbs: “My mother-in-law had a pain beneath her left breast. Turned out to be a trick knee.”
It’s easy to remember Diller for being funny, for her wildly eccentric wardrobe and that irrepressible cackling laugh, but those arguably more superficial attributes betray the comedienne’s larger cultural significance.
It’s not that there weren’t funny women before her. As long as there’s been laughter, women have helped create it. In every comedic enterprise, women have been historically front-and-center, except for the rarified realm of standup. Without Diller to blaze the trail, there would not be a Joan, or a Rosie, Ellen, or any of a legion of emerging young women comics. Rather than a glass ceiling, Diller broke through a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, cheap drinks and small club stages. She paid the dues that gave passage to generations yet to come.
As we say goodbye to her corporeal person, we should honor her legacy by remembering a simple thing she regularly said, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”