Was TV, nightclub staple from the 1950s

Phyllis Diller, the groundbreaking comedienne whose signature cackle and confidence in the men’s club of comedy made her a unique figure in entertainment circles, died Monday at age 95.

Diller, who had faced challenging health issues for several years, “died peacefully in her sleep with a smile on her face,” at her home in Brentwood, Calif., said longtime manager Milton Suchin.

George Schlatter, the co-creator of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” on which Diller was a frequent guest, said Diller was an “original” who triumphed in a business tough on women.

“I worked with over a period of probably 50 years, and every time was an adventure,” Schlatter told Variety . “She was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle (and) one of the funniest people in the world.

She wrote one of the funniest jokes that I ever heard: ‘For Christmas, my family gave me an oven that flushes.’ You can’t be funnier in fewer words than that. Whenever I do a class or lecture, I use it as an example of a perfect joke: It’s funny, it’s mean, it’s warm, it’s wonderful.”

Diller had no small amount of experience thriving in a male-dominated world before breaking into the stand-up world in her late 30s, having built a successful career as an advertising and radio writer. But in the earliest days of her standup, Diller forged unprecedented success in the way she comically embraced and challenged conventional ideas about women, paving the way for such performers as Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr — as well as a brand of comedy that is an accepted standard today.

“The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny,” Rivers tweeted wrote Monday. “If she had started today, Phyllis could have stood there in Dior and Harry Winston and become the major star that she was. I adored her.”

A Chicago Tribune columnist, describing her appearance at a nightspot there in 1958, noted she was from San Francisco, hailed her as “the weirdest, wildest yet” — and made sure to mention the five youngsters she was raising at the time.

In a career that spanned half a century, past her retirement from standup in 2002 into voiceover work on such programs as “Family Guy,” Diller built her act around the persona of the corner-cutting housewife — “I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard” — with bizarre looks and a husband named “Fang.” Diller’s dry, prolonged laugh alone was as recognizable as any aspect of performance from that era.

Wrote Time magazine in 1961: “Onstage comes something that, by its own description, looks like a sackful of doorknobs. With hair dyed by Alcoa, pipe-cleaner limbs and knees just missing one another when the feet are wide apart, this is not Princess Volupine. It is Phyllis Diller, the poor man’s Auntie Mame, only successful female among the New Wave comedians and one of the few women funny and tough enough to belt out a ‘standup’ act of one-line gags.”

Diller made her network TV debut as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.” Her career in scripted productions began with a role in 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass.”

Soon, she became a staple on the smallscreen. Though two projects that featured her, “The Pruitts of Southampton” and “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” were short-lived, she was a much-sought guest — arguably the most popular of her gender –on programs from “Laugh-In” to Bob Hope specials. Not that she was limited to performing.

“She was a pretty good writer herself,” Schlatter said. “Hope loved her because she was faster than he was.”

In fact, Diller’s comic persona tended to overshadow the Renaissance woman behind them — a concert-level pianist and gallery-exhibited artist in addition to author.

While Diller’s public persona was something of a constant, the woman born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, was a study in evolution. According to her provocatively titled autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” her childhood and first marriage were filled with anguish of which the oft-quoted fictional “Fang” from her act barely scratched the surface.

Similarly, while always cultivating self-deprecating shots at her own appearance, she came — years after her initial wave of popular success — to welcome plastic surgery as symbolic of an optimistic outlook toward life.

“There was no stopping me,” she wrote. “I underwent another 14 surgical procedures over the next 15 years.”

She credited the self-help book, “The Magic of Believing” by Claude M. Bristol, with giving her the courage to enter the business. For decades she would recommend it to aspiring entertainers, even buying it for them sometimes.

“Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said in a 1982 interview. “I’m a comic. I don’t deal with problems when I’m working. … I want people to laugh.”

When she turned 90 in July 2007, she fractured a bone in her back and was forced to cancel a planned birthday appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” She cracked: “I still take the pill, ’cause I don’t want any more grandchildren.”

“Phyllis Diller was not only a great comedienne, but her memorable teaming with Bob Hope brought female comics to the forefront,” said her contemporary, Don Rickles. “Her life was filled with goodness and she deserved the respect she received. She will be missed.”

Said Schlatter: “She didn’t have an enemy in the world. Nobody had anything but the best to say about her. While her humor was cutting, the only real victim of her humor was Fang or herself.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more