’Think of me as a sex symbol for the men who don’t give a damn’ | Andre Vincent pays tribute to Phyllis Diller

’Think of me as a sex symbol for the men who don’t give a damn’

Andre Vincent pays tribute to Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller was a trailblazer for female comics. She was a young woman in November 1940 when the Copacabana nightclub opened, offering big -name entertainment to New York mobsters. Although the bills included major music stars, the showstopper of the night was always the ‘wise-ass’ one-liner comic: male acts like Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and Don Rickles who would fearlessly banter with the city’s gangsters.

Other comedy venues were opening right across America: The Palmer House and Chez Paree in Chicago, The Coconut Grove and Crescendo in Los Angeles, The Eden Roc in Miami, The Hungry i and The Purple Onion in San Francisco and of course, The Sands in Vegas. A boom in stand-up was under way and it was dominated by men. There were a handful of female comics, but since the audience considered it taboo for them to share the bill with men, the women’s performances were confined to back rooms, gay bars and low rent clubs.

Female style was also quite different. It consisted of comedy characterisation like that of Moms Mabley, Minnie Pearl and Carol Burnett; sophisticated storytellers such as Imogene Coca and Jorie Remus; and the risqué bawdy comics such as Belle Barth, Ruth Wallis and the renowned Rusty Warren. Rusty was a brash filth comic who specialised in breasts and knew every possible joke on the subject. Her album, Knockers Up, was in the US billboard top fifty for over ten years, and was probably the biggest-selling worldwide comedy album of all time.

But this material remained insufficiently down-to-earth for women to break into the comedy circuit’s ‘big rooms’. Male comics took the ordinary, everyday lives of their audiences as their theme. They were telling the joke: ‘Take my wife’, while female comics were not even prepared to admit that they were married. Until Phyllis:

’I’ve been asked to say a couple of words about my husband. How about short and cheap?’

Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, the Only Child of Frances Ada and Perry Marcus Driver. Perry ran a fairly successful insurance company and Phyllis would sometimes go on the road with him, absorbing his perfectly-honed sales patter. She claimed it was his machine-gun style of talk that influenced her comedy delivery. Holidays were spent on the family farm where the chatter of the blue-collar workers was very different to that of her religious parents and church community, and introduced her to a less rigid view of life.

Accidentally crashing the family’s Ford Model T into some chicken pens and a large tree, Phyllis smashed her nose on the steering wheel at the tender age of nine. Since there was no hospital for miles, she was marched into the kitchen where a steak was put on her broken nose. It mended badly and her face became lopsided:

’When I was kid I played spin the bottle, if they didn’t want to kiss you they had to give you a quarter. By the time I was 12 years old I owned my own house.’

After graduating from high school, Phyllis went to Chicago and studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Music Conservatory. Discovering that she could also sing, Phyllis took on part-time work in jazz clubs. One night, after she enquired why the club owner always put the piano at the far end of the room he replied: ‘Christ kid, ’cos you’re ugly.’ She ended her jazz career soon after.

Phyllis went on to study opera at Bluffton College, Ohio, unaware that it was also a religious academy. She soon started rebelling against its orthodoxies and would be seen walking the halls naked, save for curlers, a belt, and a rose between her teeth. This performance was contrived to upset the devout students rather than to amuse them: she wasn’t at this stage looking for laughs.

By now Phyllis was dating Sherwood Diller, the brother of a fellow classmate. Completely smitten by this beautiful blue-eyed man, Phyllis lost her virginity to him and became pregnant in rapid succession. She dropped out of school to avoid the inevitable condemnation of tutors and family, and eloped with Sherwood to Covington, Kentucky:

’On our wedding night my husband brought a book to bed with him. I wouldn’t have mind if he read. He coloured!’

When war broke out, Sherwood became an airplane inspector for the army, and Phyllis tried to settle into the life of a housewife. By this time, she was the mother of five children and keeping the home in order was hard work. For fun, she sang in the local church choir where she got to know Dave Brubeck’s brother, Howard, with whom she would duet. When the pair were to perform the Jeanette MacDonald/ Nelson Eddy classic, Indian Love Call (When I’m Calling You-oo-oo-oo-oo…) in a special Thanksgiving show, Howard went down with laryngitis. Phyllis took to the stage alone, and sang both parts. The audience loved it, and so did Phyllis. Her comedy career had begun.

After the war ended, Sherwood went through seventeen jobs in ten months. The family then moved to California where Phyllis became Entertainment Editor for San Leandro News. Her fresh, attitudinal writing style quickly got her noticed and she was poached by Khan’s department store to write advertising for the store:

’Prices on our damaged fridges have been slashed. If demand is heavy, we can damage some more.’

Phyllis was soon headhunted again, and began writing ad copy for the radio stations KROW and KSFO based in San Francisco. The city became her new playground: she was a regular visitor to North Beach, the bohemian San Francisco district famous for jazz clubs, strip joints, gay bars and the renowned late night bar, The Purple Onion. One night at the club, Phyllis and Sherwood were watching the comedienne, Jorie Remus, a husky-voiced comic with a droll sense of humour. Phyllis was an avowed fan, but Sherwood was adamant that Phyllis was far funnier and that she should be a comedienne. A young man on the table next to them overheard and lent across to ask, ‘Do you write your own material?’ His name was Lloyd Clark - a performance coach, writer and director. His was the positive voice that motivated Phyllis: Clark helped develop her presentation style and material, secured her an audition at The Purple Onion and watched her (at the relatively mature age of 37) perform her very first comedy set on March 7,1955. Her quips were an instant hit:

I love going to the doctors. Where else is a man going to look at me and say, “Take off your clothes”?’

Phyllis broke all records at The Purple Onion, playing it four shows a day, six days a week for 89 weeks: 2,136 shows in under two years. It proved to be the perfect training ground for her, since during that time she experimented with characters, songs and props, but this was already established territory for female comics. Instead, Phyllis followed her mantra: ‘The quickest way between two laughs is a one-liner’ and developed the rapid-fire onslaught that came to embody her own brand.

She chose not to watch other comedians in case their work influenced her, though if she drew inspiration from anyone, she would freely admit to it being Bob Hope. Many early reviews actually commented that Diller was like Bob in drag. She took this as an enormous compliment. One night at a small, modest gig in Washington DC, Phyllis was informed that Hope was in the audience, having come along solely to see her set. Trying to leave by the dressing room window, she was stopped by Hope who barged in and said that he loved her act. This was genuine admiration: a few years later he employed her in three of his movies.

Phyllis started to talk on stage about her husband or ‘Fang’ as she referred to him – a name which Sherwood boasted of as a personal endearment rather than the insult intended. When Phyllis finally went on the road, she hoped that Sherwood would stay home with the children, but instead he packed them off to stay with family in St Louis and joined Phyllis, play-acting the role of manager. The final straw for Phyllis came when he began to claim authorship of her material. She divorced Sherwood and quickly married the actor, Warden Donovan, from whom she separated after nine weeks. But it all served as potential material for Phyllis’ act:

’I was so busy getting a divorce I didn’t have time to open my wedding presents.’

Everything in Phyllis’s life became legitimate content for her comedy, particularly her own looks. Many feminist groups attacked her self-denigrating style, but Phyllis believed it was necessary to lampoon herself before ridiculing everyone and everything else. No one was safe - in-laws, neighbours, kids, uncles, brothers - she had wisecracks about them all. The line she walked so carefully between confident and obnoxious won over every audience.

Winning over her peers was somewhat harder, in particular those at the all-male Friars, a New York private members club for comedians. During the Sid Caesar Roast (one of the regular playful attacks on celebrities) a young unknown act called Philip Downey was booked to contribute to the comedy mauling. His acerbic comments were greeted with delight by an initially sceptical audience, and when at the end of his set Philip revealed himself to be Phyllis, it was clear that everyone had been fooled.

In 1966, Phyllis was given her own TV show: one season of 30 episodes. This brought her together with a writer, a young woman starting out on her comedy career called Joan Rivers, and the two remained lifelong friends. Though Phyllis was never offered a one-woman TV show again, she could be seen on television and in film over a period of 50 years. She made more appearances on Bob Hope’s and Jack Parr’s TV shows than any other comic, popping up whenever a comedy sketch show or sit-com needed a dotty aunt or crazy neighbour. She even played an eccentric baddie – Scrubwoman - in the Batman television series.

But Phyllis was funniest live. Audiences would start laughing as soon as she walked out resembling a hippy Olive Oyl, with her wild unkempt hair and gangly body wrapped in a crazy tie-dyed dress. You had to experience Phyllis in person to appreciate her overwhelming, frantic character. Her lines were short, fast-paced and unpredictable. She paved the way for every other female comic with her blunt appreciation of what it is to be an ordinary, plain woman:

’I just bought a new peek-a-boo blouse. Men peek, then boo.’

Phyllis performed as a stand-up comedienne in every number one club and room in America for more than 50 years. Her final show was in Vegas in 2005, at the age of 88 After two divorces, 17 facelifts and five decades on the road she had accrued plenty of observations to share, including the ignominy of old age:

’You know you’re old when your walker has an airbag.’

Phyllis Diller did not just lead the female assault into comedy; she also managed to secure a wider public interest in her gender’s contribution to the profession. Her natural candour led her to joke about subjects on stage which had not previously been discussed in public. Against all social norms, Phyllis satirised her children’s father: Fang wasn’t just Sherwood, he was every woman’s husband.

Despite her groundbreaking role in the comedy industry, Phyllis did not feature in the list of 50 Best Stand-Ups Channel 5 broadcast on New Year’s Eve, yet her pioneering impact has probably been more important to comedy evolution than all 50 put together.

Click here to read Andre Vincent’s previous piece, about Frank Randle.

Published: 12 Jan 2014

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