I was in the bridal suite with Phyllis Diller. It was 1977, and the demented diva of comedy was cracking jokes about the hotel’s decor. Bouncing, coaxing farts from the leather cushions, she took in the earthy tones in the room and said, “That’s a comment on the state of virginity in this country.”
And then came the laugh. The famous raspy cackle that seemed to rise to the rafters.
When I interviewed Diller for the Springfield (MO) Daily News, she was in town to perform chords, not comedy. A concert pianist as well as a groundbreaking comedienne, she had studied piano and voice for 17 years.
But mostly we knew her as a woman who loved to get laughs, which was not easy to do back then if you were female. But that didn’t stop her. She stomped the male-dominated comedy ceiling with her silly ankle boots, shattered it with her fright wig, and punched it into oblivion with her self-deprecating humor and long gloves (“because all clowns wear gloves”).
“You can’t come out looking like Grace Kelly and be funny,” she told me. “Women always have to prove it. You have to make friends with the audience. One of the best ways to do it is to say, ‘Look, I am not perfect.'”
Oddly, though, I found Phyllis Diller to be beautiful and gracious. Of course, by that time, she’d had her teeth straightened and entertained facelifts and so many other lifts that she admitted, “I’ve been done over so many times that no two parts of my body are the same age.”
Phyllis Diller died at the age of 95. She joins a pantheon of long-lived wisecrackers: Bob Hope swung his last golf club at age 100; George Burns waved his last cigar also at 100. Surely, that is a testament to the power of humor when it comes to longevity. If she were here today, she would tell us to laugh, a lot, loudly, and with abandon.
She also would say: Have courage and follow your inner voice (no, Phyllis, that’s not the devil talking). She was a zany housewife who believed she was funny so she stepped bravely into the harsh spotlight of stand-up comedy with ridiculous shoes and a laugh like no other. She didn’t mind when Jack Parr described her as looking “like someone you avoid in the supermarket.” She always got the last laugh because she loved cutting loose with the first one.
To the grande dame of humor, life was an eternal spigot. “As long as you have life, you have material,” Phyllis Diller told me.