Diller, Phyllis (1917—)

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Diller, Phyllis (1917—)

Comedienne Phyllis Diller occupies a unique position in the annals of American stand-up comedy as the first woman to make her name in that previously all-male preserve. Remarkably, her show business career began in 1955 when she was 37 years old. In four decades, Diller progressed from being the only touring female come-dienne within the United States to one of the world's most successful and best-loved comics, and the acknowledged forerunner to the many female comics who have followed her.

Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio. She studied classical piano at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music and received a music education degree from Bufferton College, but shelved her music career to marry Sherwood Diller and start a family. It wasn't until almost fifteen years and five children later, in California, when desperation rather than dormant ambition drove her to reconsider a stage career.

As a housewife and mother, Diller's life began to fall apart in 1953. Her husband had lost his job, bills were past due, and it began to look as if the family would lose their house. Gathering her courage, Diller found herself a job writing for a local radio station; two years later, turning courage into chutzpah, she quit that job to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. She auditioned at San Francisco's Purple Onion, and, though female comedians were extremely rare, she was engaged for a two-week stint. Her instant popularity with audiences turned the two weeks into an 87-week run. In 1959 she appeared before the nation on Jack Paar's Tonight Show, and in 1960 she performed at Carnegie Hall, not at the piano, but on it—vamping and slithering, and singing satirical songs interspersed with rapid-fire comic patter.

Calling her comedy "tragedy revisited," Diller based her act on her experiences as a housewife. Dressed in outrageous costumes, with wildly disheveled bleached-blonde hair and a raucous maniacal laugh, she lampooned housework, her neighbors, a fictitious husband she called "Fang," and, most of all, herself. She has always written her own material, and the jokes come fast and furious, sometimes as many as twelve punch lines a minute. She takes pride in the fact that her jokes are "clean," though she has been criticized by feminists for her self-deprecating put-downs of her own looks and abilities. Though "Fang" is a creation of her act and, she claims, not based on either of her two husbands, the family of her first husband once brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against her for denigrating him in her routine.

Diller continued to perform her comedy act in arenas as diverse as Las Vegas supper clubs and Madison Square Garden. She did, however, return to her classical music roots from 1971 to 1982, when she played as a soloist with over a hundred different symphony orchestras around the country, using the "virtuoso" name, Illya Dillya. She has also performed in stage shows and many films. Her one dramatic role was a surprising tour de force as the wife of Zero in the film version of Elmer Rice's expressionistic play, The Adding Machine (1969); while a high point of her stage career was on Broadway in 1970 where, for several months, she played Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!

Though it was the comedic projection of herself as a frumpy grotesque that won Diller her fame and fortune, her image covered an intense insecurity about her looks. Determined to change the things she did not like about her face and body, she became notorious for her relationship with cosmetic surgery. Blatantly outspoken, she has always admitted to having herself "fixed," saying, "I used to be young and ugly. Now I'm old and gorgeous." Her very public admission of her many procedures—facelifts, nose job, tummy tuck, cheek implants, and straightened teeth among them—have caused plastic surgeons to hail her as a boon to their business. She has written humor books, and made many best-selling comedy albums. A gourmet chef, she turned entrepreneur to market her own chili and has sold her own lines of cosmetics and jewelry. There is, however, another side to Phyllis Diller. Like many celebrities, she has used her fame and wealth to support humanitarian causes and has been honored accordingly.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Borns, Betsy. "Phyllis Diller." Interview. Vol. 16, September, 1986, 25.

Smith, Ronald L. "Diller's Choice." Writer's Digest. Vol. 62, November, 1982, 20.