Phyllis Diller left our world today at the age of 95, and we are better for having laughed with her.
After several other careers, including raising five children, she became a comic in the mid-1950s on the rising edge of the feminist movement. Until Joan Rivers came along, Diller was mostly alone among the male wolves that prowled the top stages for laughs back then. She defied every rule. At a time when most comics wore suits or at the very least button down shirts, her wild costumes and outlandish wigs made a statement. She wasn’t trying to be one of the guys; she was an uber-woman despite having “two backs” and “chicken legs.” Self-deprecating and witty, she said the things many women were thinking, and laughed along with her audiences.
Boy, did she laugh.
A brilliant gag writer, she maintained a joke file better organized than many libraries. She honed her craft constantly and let the audience be the judge of a joke. If they laughed, she kept it. If not, onto another joke. Her rat-a-tat-tat delivery came with a smile and she was proud of being able to deliver twelve jokes in one minute.
She earned every laugh.
Ok, yes, she dressed like a clown and her costume had the same counter-instinctual purpose. It made the audience drop its expectations and listen. It takes a confident woman to mock herself as relentlessly as Diller did, and smart one to mock the world around her. Diller’s daft housewife comedy wasn’t necessarily social commentary but it pushed boundaries and implied that it was ok to ask questions and forget washing the windows.
Thanks to her, women like Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, and Samantha Bee built their careers on being female and funny. She was known to encourage rising comics, though she never forgot that “the audience will let you know if you’re funny or not.” One of her best lines was “Aim high and you won’t shoot your foot off.”
Go ahead, laugh with her tonight. The angels are.