Obituary: Phyllis Diller / Outlandish comedian

July 17, 1917 - Aug. 20, 2012


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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.

Ms. 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, Ms. 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, Ms. 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. She 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 Bob Hope, with whom she also appeared on numerous TV specials and traveled with to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops.

She also was the 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 Ms. Diller always shined 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 would 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 would 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, Ms. Diller studied music and voice at a conservatory in Chicago but transferred to Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, where she met 24-year-old Sherwood Diller. They eloped in 1939, she dropped out of school and they settled into married life in Bluffton.

During World War II, they moved to Ypsilanti, Mich., where Sherwood worked at a B-24 bomber plant. In 1945, he transferred to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.

Over the next 10 years, Sherwood Diller held a string of jobs while Phyllis raised their five children. But with job changes and frequent unemployment, times were tough.

All the while, Ms. Diller had amused friends at parties with her jokes about household drudgery. She was so good that her husband began pushing her to become a professional comic.

When she first started, Ms. Diller told United Press International in 1984, "I looked like the woman next door. I mean, I was just anybody, and on stage that just doesn't work. My opening night I wore a cotton dress. I had brown hair -- pullleassse."

She then broke into her infectious, trademark laugh.

"So, little by little, I learned," she said. "Making myself a blonde was the first step. I started dressing more theatrically, and then I realized I couldn't make body jokes if they could see my actual figure because I had a good figure. That got me to those little dresses, and then later I designed my funny boots and gloves. I had to wear gloves because all clowns wear gloves."

The famous hairdo, she said, was an accident.

"I had gotten into so much trouble bleaching my hair myself that I had to go to a scalp clinic, and they gave me this comb and said brush the top of your head for circulation. My hair was standing straight up after that, but I was so busy I'd forgotten to put it back down when I'd go out on interviews for jobs. But it worked."

She rose swiftly up the show business ladder, appearing as a contestant on Groucho Marx's TV quiz show "You Bet Your Life" in 1958, the same year she made the first of numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Jack Paar.

By 1962, she was performing at Carnegie Hall.

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