Diller, Phyllis Ada

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DILLER, Phyllis Ada

(b. 17 July 1917 in Lima, Ohio), stand-up comic and television performer who gained fame in the 1960s for her outrageous appearance and skewed takes on marriage, child rearing, and suburbia.

The only child of Perry Marcus Driver, an insurance agency manager, and Frances Ada Romshe, a homemaker, Diller enjoyed a comfortable childhood in the northwestern Ohio city of Lima. Although she later recalled a shy and awkward adolescence, Diller engaged in tennis, dramatics, and journalism at Lima's Central High School. After graduating from high school in 1935 she left for Chicago and enrolled in the Sherwood Music Conservatory to study piano. Overcome by doubts about her chances to pursue a career as a concert pianist, Diller returned to Ohio after two years in Chicago and enrolled at Bluffton College. On 4 November 1939 she eloped with Sherwood Anderson Diller, whom she met at Bluffton during her senior year.

In 1940 the Dillers moved to the San Francisco Bay area. Over the next fifteen years, Sherwood Diller had a series of jobs ranging from factory inspector to salesman, and the Diller family grew to include five children. Diller also supported the family as a consumer columnist for the San Leandro News-Observer and as a copywriter for an Oakland department store. By the mid-1950s Diller worked full-time as a copy writer for KROW radio in Oakland and then as a press relations director at KSFO in San Francisco. Money remained tight in the household, a fact that Diller acknowledged in a 2000 interview with Daily Variety: "[M]y husband had a real objective point of view. His objective was, 'Hey, there's money to be made with this chick!' "

Diller served as an emcee at various civic functions around Alameda, California, and began writing routines for a stand-up comedy act, which debuted on 7 March 1955 at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco. In its first incarnation, Diller's act relied on her musical training and a number of costume changes, as she spoofed Jeannette McDonald, Eartha Kitt, and novelty singer Yma Sumac in between her monologues. She immediately revised the act when she realized that the monologues were proving far more entertaining than her impressions, and her two-week engagement at the Purple Onion stretched to eighty-nine weeks. By the time the stint was over, Diller had refined the basic version of her act that would prove durable for the next forty years. Her hair in disarray, wearing outlandish, ill-fitting clothes, often with combat boots, Diller held a long cigarette holder as she reviewed her lackluster efforts at housekeeping, the crumbling state of her marriage, and the bumbling antics of her imaginary husband Fang. Punctuating her jokes with exaggerated expressions and a cackling laugh, Diller presented a version of domesticity far removed from its depiction on contemporary television shows such as Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show.

Indeed, Diller presented a counterpoint to the images of femininity and domesticity that dominated the media in the 1960s. Although her stage persona and mannerisms were outlandish, she articulated the everyday frustrations that the so-called "average housewife" faced with her husband, children, and neighbors. Her commentary avoided the overtly political, but Diller's ultimate contribution to American culture in the 1960s was a decidedly subversive critique of domesticity and gender roles. Domestic squabbles were Diller's comedic stock-in-trade, as she demonstrated in her 1967 book Phyllis Diller's Marriage Manual. "My mother-in-law must be the probation officer I got for the crime I committed when I married my husband," she wrote, "I'm surprised she isn't nicer to me. With the kind of husband her son made, you'd think she'd be afraid I'd sue her." Diller published two other humor books, Phyllis Diller Tells All About Fang (1963), and Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints (1966).

A regular cabaret and nightclub performer throughout the 1960s, Diller also made dozens of appearances on the Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Hollywood Squares, and Laugh-In. Diller also took on acting roles that usually stayed close to her comic persona. Her most successful film was 1966's Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! with Bob Hope. The same year she starred in the television series The Pruitts of Southampton, which was renamed The Phyllis Diller Show in its 1967–1968 season. Another series, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, lasted just one year in 1968–1969. The title played upon Diller's deliberately bizarre appearance, as well as her acknowledgment of undergoing plastic surgery. Making fun of her plastic surgery in her routine, Diller was one of the first celebrities to discuss the topic openly, albeit in a humorous fashion.

On 3 September 1965 Diller's real-life marriage to Sherwood Diller ended in divorce; she married actor Warde Donovan on 7 October the same year. Diller and Donovan divorced in 1975. From the 1970s through the 1990s Diller continued to appear as a guest star on numerous television shows while maintaining a constant touring schedule. Realizing her childhood dream, she also played as a guest pianist with dozens of symphony orchestras in the 1970s. After almost a half century of performing as one of America's favorite comics, the eighty-five-year-old Diller announced in 2002 that she was ending her career in stand-up, although she planned on continuing her television work.

Diller's life and career are discussed in Susan Horowitz, Queens of Comedy: Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, and the New Generation of Funny Women (1997). A profile of Diller, "Standup's First Lady," by Jason Smith appeared in Daily Variety (8 Sept. 2000). Tony Vellela interviewed Diller, "Pioneer Showed Women How to Stand Up and Be Funny," in the Christian Science Monitor (2 Mar. 2001).

Timothy Borden

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