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Comedy’s Self-Deprecating Pioneer Phyllis Diller Dies

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 20, 2012

A queen of comedy has died. Phyllis Diller had audiences in stitches for more than five decades with her outlandish get-ups and rapid-fire one-liners. She died at her home, where she had been in hospice care after a fall. She was 95.

Diller was glamorously outrageous — or at least the character she created was glamorously outrageous, the one who wore wigs that made her look like she had her finger in an electrical outlet, who wore gaudy sequined outfits. She was known for her laugh and those nasty jokes about her dimwitted husband, “Fang.”

“Everybody says, ‘Why do you call him Fang?’ He’s got this one tooth, it’s 2 inches long. I met him at a cocktail party; I kept trying to light it,” she told her audience. “About all he’s good for is opening beer cans.”

Phyllis Ada Driver was born in Lima, Ohio. She got a late start in comedy at age 37. At the time, she was married with five children; her husband was chronically unemployed. In 2006, Diller told NPR’s Lynn Neary that was why she got into comedy.

“Poverty, and my husband, my husband Sherwood Diller insisted that I become a comic,” she said. “The thing is, I had been doing [comedy] all my life without realizing it because I’m a born comic. I was born funny. I think funny, and … my attitude toward life was funny.”

But in the 1950s, when Diller started being funny for a living, there were no female stand-up comedians making it big. Some critics have said Diller succeeded because a lot of her material was about mocking herself — her skills as a housewife and her looks — which made her less of a threat to male comics.

“I was so ugly my own Ouija board told me to go to hell. A peeping Tom threw up on my window sill,” she joked to her audience.

But in real life Diller never let her looks get in the way. In addition to standup, movies and TV, she was an avid painter and a classically trained pianist. She performed with dozens of symphony orchestras as the character Dame Illya Dillya. She even got some pretty good reviews.

Diller was also a gourmet cook, unlike her stage persona.

“Of course last week I had a grease fire in the kitchen,” she joked. “It was in the sink, actually. I had a greasy sink. I have watched bugs slide to their death.”

Diller continued working well into her 80s. She told NPR that comedy keeps people going.

“Look at all the old comics who live to be 100,” she said. “I can name two: George Burns, Bob Hope. Milton Berle [was] 96. What do you think keeps them alive? Laughter, comedy, the light touch, seeing the funny in [everything].”

The late Diller: comedian, pioneer and self-described good cook. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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