Phyllis Diller, the cackling comedian with electric-shock hair who built an influential career in film and nightclubs with stand-up routines that mocked irascible husbands, domestic drudgery and her extensive plastic surgery, died Monday in Los Angeles. She was 95.
Although there has been a long history of comic actresses, Diller was among the first to tackle the male preserve of stand-up comedy. She used her first husband for comedic fodder by disguising him as a fictitious character named “Fang.” Her jokes -- roasts of Fang’s drinking habits, sexual shortcomings and professional failures -- reversed traditional household roles (“his finest hour lasted a minute and a half”).
Diller also joked that, much to her chagrin, he was her manager. She complained that he “couldn’t sell Windex to a Peeping Tom.”
Pacing the stage, she spoke grumpily about her unhappy sex life (like bouncing on a trampoline, she said), her lackluster kitchen skills (though she boasted of her recipe for “garbage soup”), and her struggle to keep up with totems of sexual and domestic bliss (Marilyn Monroe and Donna Reed, respectively).
“Would you believe that I once entered a beauty contest?” she said. “I must have been out of my mind. I not only came in last, I got 361 get-well cards.”
Susan Horowitz, a stand-up comic and author of the 1997 book “Queens of Comedy,” called Diller a significant figure in American culture who rose to success through her wickedly self-mocking style.
“The self-deprecation made her more endearing, more comfortable for people,” Horowitz said. “Everything she did was for the purpose of getting ahead.”
Ms. Diller’s comedic cadence -- a series of staccato one-liners -- was strategically crafted. Following in the groove of her mentor, Bob Hope, she rhythmically fired off punch lines on top of one another so the jokes built a momentum, garnering as many as 12 laughs per minute on stage.
In a typical rant about her mother-in-law (whom she often referred to as “Moby Dick”), Diller laid on the ridicule line by line.
She described her in-law’s dress size as “junior missile.” She went on: “She went swimming off the coast of Florida, three Navy planes identified her as Cuba.” Her in-law’s eating habits were so bad that once a month, she was “shoved through the Holland Tunnel to clean it.”
Flicking her cigarette, Diller delivered the final snickering blow: “If you get in an elevator with her, well, you’d better be going down.”
Diller’s stage appearance was ghastly -- and highly calculated. Operating under the belief that attractive women could not be taken seriously in comedy, she wore shapeless, short dresses, allowing her to poke fun at her flat chest (she claimed to be the only woman in America with two backs) and her toothpick “bird legs.”
Clownlike and outlandish, she accessorized with long velvet gloves and calf-length boots. She dyed her hair platinum blond (“to reflect light”) and teased it into an Einstein-like frenzy, feeding her persona of a crazed, incompetent ugly ducking, and later wore a collection of outrageous wigs.
The uglier, the funnier, she said.
“Comedy is aggressive,” Diller once explained. “That’s why men used to hate women comics. That’s why there weren’t any. . . . Women are not supposed to be bright, and there’s no such thing as a dumb comic.”
Offstage, Diller was known among her friends and colleagues as an intellectual, an artist, a gourmet cook and, at times, a flirt. Over the years, she caught the attention of many men, two of whom became husbands.
A former housewife and radio station copywriter, Diller entered show business at 37 in part to support her growing family. She made her stand-up debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub in 1955, drawing largely from her early classical piano training by parodying the purring chanteuse Eartha Kitt and Yma Sumac, a Peruvian folk singer with a colorfully dramatic voice.
When the initial audience response was tepid, Diller refined her act until her stage persona was perfected, editing out the musical routines when her monologues proved more successful. She carried an unlit cigarette holder on stage because she said it gave her “an excuse to hold up one hand . . . an attention getter.”
After establishing herself in the comedy club circuit, she deepened her popularity with appearances on TV programs including Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life” and Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” in the late 1950s. She had a one-woman show at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1962 and starred in several films with Hope, including “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” (1966) and “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell” (1968).
She appeared as salty nightclub hostess Texas Guinan in the film drama “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and starred in the ABC sitcom “The Pruitts of Southampton” (quickly renamed “The Phyllis Diller Show”) in 1966 and 1967.
Her distinctive vocal qualities brought her work through the 1990s and 2000s, notably as the voice of the Queen in the 1998 animated film “A Bug’s Life” and as the voice of Thelma Griffin, the chain-smoking, gambling mother of Peter Griffin, a central character on the Fox animated sitcom “Family Guy.”
Phyllis Ada Driver was born in Lima, Ohio, on July 7, 1917. Her father was an insurance salesman in his 50s and her mother was a housewife 20 years his junior. Her parents were unusually old during that era to start a family, and Phyllis was their only child.
Diller said she felt emotionally distant from them. “When I was kidnapped,” she later joked, “they wouldn’t pay the ransom -- they didn’t want to break a 10.”
While in high school, she played on the tennis team, participated in stage productions and studied classical piano. In 1935, she enrolled in the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago. But two years later, thinking her talent was not professional grade, she transferred to Bluffton College in Ohio with the hope of being a teacher.
In her senior year, she eloped with a fellow student, Sherwood Diller, who came from a wealthy Bluffton family. They eventually settled in San Francisco and, in time, had six children, one of whom died in infancy. She was active in church affairs and devoted her time to homemaking, which was made difficult by her husband’s frequent job changes.
To augment the family income, Diller began taking copywriting jobs for an Oakland department store and radio station. On the side, she discovered she had a talent for making her friends and neighbors at PTA meetings giggle as she joked about her harried domestic life.
Although her husband encouraged her growing interest in stand-up comedy, she said it was chiefly for financial stability. In the early 1950s, a self-help book called “The Magic of Believing” spurred her to pursue a new career.
Her marriages to Diller and actor Warde Donovan ended in divorce. Two children from her first marriage died, Peter Diller in 1998 and Stephanie Diller in 2002. Survivors include three children from her first marriage.
Diller lived for more than 40 years in a lavish 22-room home in Los Angeles, furnished with an elaborate kitchen, musical instruments and a painting studio. Her paintings were shown in major art galleries and often sold for thousands of dollars.
She continued to play the piano and harpsichord throughout her life and appeared in more than 100 concerts with symphony orchestras, combining humor with serious music.
Diller indulged in more than a dozen plastic surgeries, which she discussed candidly in her comedy routines.
“When I die, God won’t know me,” she joked. “There are no two parts of my body the same age. If I have one more face-lift, it’ll be a cesarean.”
A 2004 documentary, “Goodnight, We Love You,” chronicled Diller’s life and what she said was her final stand-up performance in 2002. In fact, she continued to make sporadic appearances on television and in film for several years.
The title of her 2006 autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” came from a comic routine about her clothes: “You think I’m overdressed? This is my slip. . . . I used to work as a lampshade at a whorehouse. I couldn’t get one of the good jobs.”
Her other books included “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints” (1966), “The Complete Mother” (1969) and “The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them” (1981).
Diller’s legacy lies not in her onstage eccentricities, but in her refusal to adhere to the unforgiving gender politics of the mid-20th century. Her exaggerated character became a humorous protest of the housewife ideal and echoed the frustrations of many American wives.
She offered something to women that male comics could not. Relief.
“The only thing domestic about me is that I was born in this country,” she once joked. “I serve dinner in three phases: serve the food, clear the table, bury the dead.”