Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Phyllis Diller

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Phyllis Diller

TMZ is reporting the death of Phyllis Diller, the brassy comedian who paved the way for generations of female comics to come. Diller had suffered from numerous health problems in recent years, and was most recently recovering from a bad fall while living in hospice care. She was 95.


Beginning with her first stand-up appearances in 1955, the housewife-turned-advertising copywriter-turned radio personality Diller developed an exaggerated, eccentric persona that was steeped in self-deprecating wisecracks. Diller—often dressed in gaudy feather boas that matched her fright-wig hair, and twiddling a long cigarette holder—specialized in one-liner gags aimed squarely at her own appearance, her inability (and apathy about trying) to satisfy her fictional husband "Fang" in the kitchen and the bedroom, and the ravages of age. (A typical Phyllis Diller joke: "I love to shop for shoes. It's the only place where a man tells me that I'm a 10.")

Like her contemporary Joan Rivers—who wrote jokes for Diller before breaking out on her own—Diller offered a cackling antithesis to the role of the pretty little wife, mocking household chores and the desire to be beautiful in her instantly recognizable, braying laughter. In her later years, she similarly mocked her many experiences with plastic surgery, and even posed for a semi-joking Playboy pictorial, then laughed it off when the magazine decided not to publish it.

Diller's ability to roll with the punches and give as good as she got endeared her to her biggest sponsor, Bob Hope, who cast in her many of his TV specials, several of his movies, and brought her along on his famed USO tour during the Vietnam War. And it also helped her break into the boys' club that was the celebrity roast.

She was also a regular presence on shows like The Tonight Show, What's My Line?, and Laugh-In, though the rare attempts to build series around her (including the sitcom The Phyllis Diller Show and the ironically named variety hour The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show) were short-lived.

Until very recently, Diller continued to guest star in TV series including 7th Heaven, The Drew Carey Show, The Bold And The Beautiful, Blossom, and Boston Legal (as herself), while also lending her easily recognizable voice to Family Guy (as Peter's mother), King Of The Hill, Scooby-Doo, AnimaniacsThe Adventures Of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Robot Chicken, and Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life.

Although her film career arguably peaked with her debut—as the "Hello, suckers!"-spouting hostess Texas Guinan in Elia Kazan's Splendor In The Grass—Diller gamely riffed on her persona in dozens of movies, everything from The Fat Spy to The Sunshine Boys to The Silence Of The Hams. Children of a certain generation may best remember Diller from the campy, swingin' '60s Rankin/Bass movie Mad Monster Party, in which the fact that Diller appears amid several classic monsters looking exactly like herself is its own implicit joke.

And of course, many modern audiences will recognize Diller from The Aristocrats, wherein Diller—who kept it clean over more than 50 years of stand-up—told the story of fainting the first time she heard the routine, before offering up a perfectly timed riposte to a bestiality gag. She was also profiled in her own documentary, 2006's Goodnight, We Love You.

Also like Joan Rivers, Diller was insanely prolific, keeping a meticulously organized "gag file" arranged alphabetically by subject in a large steel cabinet. (All of these, Diller would always say, were vetted to a scientific degree, tested three times in front of an audience, then added to the rotation or discarded based on how many laughs they got.)  In 2003, Diller donated that cabinet to the National Museum of American History, creating a lasting exhibit composed of some 48 drawers compiling more than 50,000 of the one-liners rattled off in Diller's lifetime. It's an impressive body of work—even if, as Diller might say, that's the only time "impressive" and "body" have been used to describe her.