The grand lady of comedy, Phyllis Diller, passed away on Aug. 20 at age 95. Can’t you just see her, strutting through the Pearly Gates in a pink, knee-length dress, encrusted with blinding sequins, matching silver gloves and boots, flashing her trademark wild, electrified hairdo?
One might expect St. Peter to be accustomed to welcoming all sorts, but even he might be taken aback when the Madonna of the Geritol set, as she loved to be called, greets him with the familiar Diller cackle, “They’re lettin’ anyone in here nowadays. Ha Ha Ha Haaaa Ha.”
With her trademark on-stage, rapid-fire delivery, Diller was famous for launching into a string of one-liners without batting an artificial eyelash, poking fun at celebrities, her mythical family, and of course, herself.
“You know you’re old when they discontinue your blood type ... and your birth certificate is on a scroll … and your walker has an airbag,” she would say.
I interviewed Phyllis twice, once for our local public radio station, and also for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006 several years after she mothballed her collection of electrifying fright wigs and flashy show dresses, and retired from performing after 47 years of stand-up comedy.
“I loved doing the shows, but physically it was getting harder for me,” Diller, who was around 90 at the time, told me. “A one-hour show is just the tip of the iceberg. All the traveling, rehearsals and media sessions became more tiring.”
Diller’s final stand-up performance in 2002 was preserved by filmmaker Gregg Barson. His entertaining documentary film, “Goodnight, we love you: the life and legend of Phyllis Diller” weaved clips from the show and backstage footage into a compelling story about Diller’s extraordinary life and career. I thoroughly recommend it for fans of classic comedy.
Phyllis Diller began performing in 1955, when stand-up comedy was dominated by men. Despite having no professional show biz experience, her family and friends encouraged the witty, 37-year-old housewife and mother of five to try her routine at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub.
“I was shaking all over and sweated so much, I made a puddle on the stage,” Diller said of her first 17-minute act.
The housewife-turned-humorist was a smash, winning over audiences while poking fun at celebrities and life in general. She soon caught the eye of influential entertainers who saw the potential of her estrogen-driven humor.
“I got national exposure on the Jack Parr Show, my first big turning point,” said Diller. “And several movies with Bob Hope really boosted my career.”
Stephen Rosenfield, director of New York’s Academy of Comedy Institute, offered me some interesting insight on Diller’s legacy. “[She] went straight from kitchen to stage, and lit the path for all aspiring women comedians who followed her.”
Lisa Lampanelli, the reigning queen of bawdy insult comedy, was one of them. She told me her career got a boost after Diller became the first woman inducted into the Friars Club of California “Wall of Fame” several years ago.
“It opened the way for me and other women to get into the Friars Club,” said Lampanelli. “That led to my roles in the ‘Comedy Central Roasts,’ and my career was off and running. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably be working at Kinkos!”
Aside from comedy, Diller was also blessed with many other talents. She was a gourmet cook, an antique car enthusiast, author, gifted musician (playing piano with over 100 orchestras) and an accomplished painter.
“I learned from her that diversity is a way to keep yourself creatively fulfilled,” said comic Rita Rudner, who is also a successful author.
But to most fans, Diller will always be remembered for her nuclear-powered hacking laugh, the crazy wigs and costumes, and her brilliant comic timing.
Veteran comic David Brenner witnessed all that and more during Diller’s final live show.
“She gave a remarkable performance, 45 minutes of nonstop laughs. You’d never have known it was her last,” he told me. “There will never be another Phyllis Diller.”
Hopefully St. Pete has a sense of humor, and agrees.
Thomas' features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.