This week’s game changer was a mother of five, a concert pianist, and an author. She was a film, TV, and stage actress. She was a philanthropist and a gay icon. Her big break was more about finding a way to support her family rather than just achieving fame. If Joan Rivers invented the game for women in comedy, then this game changer is a showbiz demigoddess. We’re talking about Phyllis Diller.
The Lima, Ohio native didn’t start until she was 37 years old. Initially, she went to college to study classical piano. She felt she lacked what it took to be a pianist, and she transferred schools. When she met her husband, she dropped out. To make ends meet, she became a copywriter. Eventually, she worked in broadcasting, and she had a segment called “Phyllis Dillis the Homely Friendmaker”. After the encouragement of her husband and reading The Magic of Believing, she made her stage debut in 1955. It was at the legendary San Francisco club Purple Onion.
Originally, her act was remarkably theatrical and used props. She read from a fake advice column or spoofed classical musical. The act eventually evolved into one liners about her husband, Fang. She riffed, “I asked him to lower the thermostat. He put it six inches above the floor.” For a good chunk of her career, she sported a cigarette holder with a wooden cigarette (she didn’t actually smoke). Her signature hair stood on end. It was a happy accident from an at-home bleaching as she explained later in interviews. Her attire consisted of baggy dresses in order for her body to be part of the punches. In real life, her body was in good shape. So good allegedly, Playboy took some nude pictures of her that never went to print due to fear of ruining the gag. Diller was a pioneer, and there really wasn’t many true women comics before her.
She had to look to her counterparts for inspiration, such as Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jonathan Winters. She knew she was different, and she provoked a fun reaction. As she described the response, “Get a stick and kill it before it multiplies!” Diller garnered the attention of Bob Hope. He mentored the budding comic. The two toured and made movies together. She also worked with an early Lorne Michaels. For 13 episodes, she had her own variety TV show, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. She hired Michaels as a writer. He was a nobody at the time. Diller did it all. She guested on game shows, voiced cartoon characters, played piano with orchestras, and made many movies. She spent nearly 50 years in showbiz. Near the end, she found herself exhausted. When asked why she retired, she responded, “If you can’t dance to comedy, forget it. It’s music.”
The comedy vet doled out wisdom. In a 1986 interview with Terry Gross, she explained the final word in the joke has to pop. That is what gets the laugh. She also stated there’s three types in the the comedy women in the world: the comedienne, the comic actress, and the comic. While arguably Diller could contend for all three at different times, she identified as the comic. The comic writes their own material and stands alone. This comic had a file cabinet with over 50,000 jokes tucked away.
This July 17th marks what would have been the comic’s 99th birthday. To name off the comedians Diller influenced would be an understatement. She’s influenced everyone since whether they know it or not. Phyllis Diller is a game changer.