Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES - Phyllis Diller, the zany housewife-turned-stand-up comic with the electrified hairdo, outlandish wardrobe and a barrage of self-deprecating jokes punctuated by her trademark laugh, has died. She was 95.
Diller, whose career in comedy clubs spanned nearly 50 years, died in her sleep Monday at her longtime home in Los Angeles, said her agent, Fred Wostbrock.
As a professional comedian, Diller was a late bloomer: The Ohio native was an Alameda, Calif., mother of five when she made her nightclub debut at the Purple Onion in San Francisco in 1955 -- at age 37.
Known for her adept timing and precisely structured jokes, Diller took pride in being able to deliver as many as 12 punch lines per minute.
The first laugh came easy. With her fright-wig hair and garish attire that typically included a fake-jeweled cigarette holder, gloves and ankle boots, she merely had to walk on stage.
Jack Paar once described her as looking "like someone you avoid at the supermarket." Bob Hope called her "a Warhol mobile of spare parts picked up along a freeway."
But Diller was always the first to address her colorfully eccentric stage persona, describing herself as "The Elizabeth Taylor of 'The Twilight Zone' " and a woman who once worked "as a lampshade in a whorehouse."
During her long career, she was in more than two dozen movies, including three with Hope, with whom she also appeared on numerous TV specials and traveled with to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops.
She also was host of a 1964 TV talent show called "Show Street," starred as the widowed matriarch of a financially strapped society family in the 1966-67 situation comedy "The Pruitts of Southampton" (renamed "The Phyllis Diller Show" midway through the season), and starred in the short-lived 1968 comedy-variety series "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show."
But the outlandish Diller always shone best in nightclubs, showrooms and concert halls, where one of her favorite targets was her domestic life, including her fictional husband, "Fang."
"I don't like to cook; I can make a TV dinner taste like radio," she'd say.
"Fang's idea of a seven-course dinner is a six-pack and a bologna sandwich. The last time I said let's eat out, we ate in the garage."
"I put on a peekaboo blouse. He took a peek and booed."
Then she'd launch one of her patented guffaws: "Ah-HAA-haa-haa!"
In his book "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s," author Gerald Nachman writes: "Diller wasn't the first woman stand-up comedian, but she was the first to make it respectable, to drag female comedy out of the gay bars, backrooms and low-rent resorts and go toe-to-toe with her male counterparts in prime clubs."
Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, Diller made people laugh at an early age.
"When I realized I looked like Olive Oyl and wanted to look like Jean Harlow, I knew something had to be done," she once said. "From 12 on, the only way to handle the terror of social situations was comedy -- break the ice, make everybody laugh. I did it to make people feel more relaxed, including myself."