Phyllis Diller, 1917-2012: Comedian blazed trail for other funny women

Phyllis Diller cuts the cake during the Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio's 65th birthday in 1998 in Toledo. She introduced herself as the 'Madonna of the Geritol Set.'
Phyllis Diller cuts the cake during the Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio's 65th birthday in 1998 in Toledo. She introduced herself as the 'Madonna of the Geritol Set.'

BRENTWOOD, Calif. -- Phyllis Diller, a Lima, Ohio, native whose sassy, rapid-fire stand-up comedy helped open the door for two generations of funny women, died on Monday. She was 95.

Ms. Diller, who became famous for telling jokes that mocked her odd looks, her aversion to housekeeping, and a husband she called Fang, was not the first woman to do stand-up comedy. But she was one of the most influential.

Precious few could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or overpower an audience with such an outrageous personality. "I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek, and then they'd boo."

Another: "I never made 'Who's Who,' but I'm featured in 'What's That?'"

Ms. Diller, a 37-year-old homemaker when she took up comedy, mined her domestic life for material, assuring audiences that she fed Fang and her kids garbage soup and buried her ironing in the backyard. She exuded an image that was part Wicked Witch of the West and part clown.

In her many television appearances she would typically sashay onstage wearing stiff, outsize, hideous metallic dresses, high-heeled shoes or boots studded with rhinestones, and a bejeweled collar or a fur scarf she claimed was made from an animal she had trapped under the sink.

Slinking along on skinny legs, her feet invariably pointed outward, penguin-style, she originally carried a cigarette holder that held a make-believe cigarette from which she continually flicked imaginary ashes. Ms. Diller did not smoke.

Her hair was the blond flyaway variety, sometimes looking as if it was exploding from her scalp; her eyes were large and ferocious, her nose thin and overlong (she ultimately tamed it through plastic surgery).

And then there was that unforgettable, ear-shattering voice, which would frequently explode into a cackle.

Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio. She developed a strong interest in classical music, became accomplished on the piano and other instruments, and sang well; by the time she got to high school, she had an interest in writing and dramatics. In 1935, her last year at Central High School, she was voted the school's most talented student. The former Lima Central High School and the former Lima South High School were consolidated into what is now Lima Senior High School, a public high school, in the 1950s. The old Central High School burned to the ground in 1966.

After briefly attending the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago, she entered Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, with thoughts of becoming a music teacher. She left before her senior year after she married Sherwood Anderson Diller, and they later moved to California.

She wrote a shopping column for a newspaper in San Leandro and advertising copy for a department store in Oakland, then moved on to a job as a copywriter, continuity writer, and publicist for a radio station in Oakland before joining a San Francisco station as director of promotion and merchandising.

She was poor and unhappy, and she would meet other poor and unhappy women at the laundromat and have them in gales of laughter with her account of her home life. Word spread about Phyllis Diller, and soon she was being asked to give presentations at parties and PTA meetings.

Her husband thought she should be paid to make people laugh. Inspired by a self-help book, The Magic of Believing by Claude M. Bristol, she began to write comedy routines, hired a drama coach, and took whatever paid or unpaid performing jobs she could get: at hospitals, women's clubs, church halls. She made her bona fide professional debut at the Purple Onion, a San Francisco nightclub, in 1955.

She was believable as well as hilarious when she talked about her husband, Fang; her mother-in-law, Moby Dick, and her sister-in-law, Captain Bligh. She was so believable that shortly after she and Mr. Diller divorced in 1965, his mother and sister sued her for defamation of character in an effort to keep her from talking about them in her act. They settled out of court.

Ms. Diller was never really the grotesque-looking woman she made herself out to be. When she posed for a Playboy photo spread the pictures ended up not being published -- the magazine was going for laughs and decided that they looked too good to be funny.

And despite her self-deprecating humor, she was concerned about her appearance. She became one of the first celebrities not just to have plastic surgery but also to acknowledge and even publicize that fact. But she continued to joke about her appearance.

Her career was not limited to movies, television, or stand-up comedy. Between 1971 and 1981 she appeared as a piano soloist with some 100 symphony orchestras nationwide under the name Dame Illya Dillya. A review of a concert in the San Francisco Examiner called her "a fine concert pianist with a firm touch."

She also appeared on Broadway, stepping into the lead role in Hello, Dolly! in late 1969 and early 1970. She painted and wrote a number of books, including Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints, The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them, and, in 2005, her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy.

After she and Mr. Diller divorced in 1965, she married Warde Donovan, an actor. She never remarried after that union ended in divorce too.

Her last appearance in the Toledo area was in April, 2002, when she was in a stand-up tour at the River Raisin Center for the Arts in Monroe. The next night, she performed at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin. Four years before that, she was a host at the Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio's 65th birthday party.

In 1993, Ms. Diller was the commencement speaker at Bluffton and received a Doctor of Humane Letters, according to a school official. On May 30, 1993, she received a resolution from then-Gov. George Voinovich for her humanitarian and civic spirit.

Also in 1993, she held a benefit concert at the Civic Center in her hometown of Lima as a fund-raiser event for Yoder Recital Hall, according to staff members at WLIO-TV in Lima. She returned to Lima for a high school class reunion some time after that, but a record of when was unavailable.

Her final appearance was in Las Vegas in May, 2002, three years after she suffered a heart attack. It was captured in the 2004 documentary Goodnight, We Love You.