Farewell to the comic oddity that was Phyllis Diller
A long career took her to the age of 95. Behind the jokes and stage presence was a lot of personal sadness
‘THE ONLY tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted that a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.” This. Came. From. Joan. Rivers. As she would say herself: I mean, please, come on. Does Joan Rivers look like a normal person? But then Phyllis Diller herself was a great fan of plastic surgery, and also a friend of Joan Rivers, so perhaps she would have understood.
Phyllis Diller got a strange send-off, even by the standards of a female stand-up comedian who died aged 95 after a career in which she worked hard to appear as grotesque as possible.
I cannot be the only person to have spotted that Big Bird from Sesame Street was modelled pretty precisely on Diller in her prime. The big, surprised eyes, the splayed feet, the inquisitive neck . . . okay, so I am the only person. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
At the same time, Dame Edna Everage could have been Phyllis’s sister – only the glasses were different; and the gender, not so obviously. At the beginning of her career Phyllis had to move not so much beyond gender, as beyond sexual attractiveness.
That’s why she started to look more and more outrageous, because she was on the run, not from looking ugly, as she maintained, but from looking cute. She said herself her dresses were designed to hide her body ” because my figure was good”.
So, to a child in the last century watching Phyllis Diller on RTÉ television – where so much of the comedy was American – was an unsettling experience. She didn’t look like a mummy, a nun, an auntie or a princess. She looked like an alien in a studded dog collar. This was, of course, her plan.
At the beginning of her career, when she went on You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx in 1958, she was a smart-looking, pleasant young woman. She hadn’t spiked her hair yet, or started the famous laugh. You were a housewife, said Groucho, vaguely, after he’d fed her a couple of lines and she’d done well, never taking her eyes off him as she delivered. “I beat the rap,” she said. And she had.
Her greatest invention, besides herself, her mother-in-law Moby Dick, and her sister in law, Captain Ahab, was her invisible stage husband Fang: “The other night Fang was reading the obituaries and he said ‘Isn’t it amazing how people die in alphabetical order?’” And last week Phyllis was up there in the Ds. Reading through the longer obituaries, you were reminded how she appeared before us always in disguise.
Underneath, she was a respectable mother and grandmother, the breadwinner for several families, who enjoyed playing gin rummy with Bob Hope’s widow, Dolores, and with June Havers, the widow of Fred MacMurray. She stayed friends with the girls she had gone to high school with back in Lima, Ohio. She was a concert pianist and an artist who exhibited her paintings several times a year; she said her medium was acrylic, water and spit. She wrote several books, of which The Joys of Aging and How To Avoid Them is the one you would most like to read, apart from her memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.
She called her comedy tragedy revisited, and it is easy to see why. Three of her six children died before her – one as an infant of two weeks, and then a son and a daughter as adults in more recent years. Another daughter was diagnosed as schizophrenic when the condition was even less understood than it is now. Last week, friends explained that Phyllis Diller fought for years to keep the girl at home, but that in the end she was institutionalised. All of this in addition to the fact that her first husband, Sherwood Diller, was disinclined to keep a job and was later found to have mental difficulties of his own.
In old age, she said: “It took me to be over 80 years old – beyond that age – to realise that my act was very therapeutic.” She told Roseanne Barr that being a stand-up took “a barrel of guts”. Propelled by a self-help book – The Magic Of Believing by Claude M Bristol – she started at a club in San Francisco, The Purple Onion, which had a big gay clientele. “Joan Rivers and I both absolutely insist that we never would have got started without our gay audience . They were the first to actually accept us as funny women,” she said. Her second husband was bisexual.
Another of her showbusiness children – or grandchildren – is Lady Gaga. You can bet that Phyllis would have worn a meat dress if she could have found one, or had one run up downtown. After all, she wore drag her whole life.
There is a PhD to be written on female comedians erasing their sexuality and coming on stage with the most blistering lines of self-hatred, only to hit the plastic surgeon’s table as often as they can in their off-duty hours. The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery gave Phyllis Diller a special award for being the first to publicise its services. Thank God Jo Brand doesn’t seem to have gone there yet.
These women are blisteringly clever and rich and tough, yet they feel that they have to disguise themselves and diss themselves so thoroughly before an audience. What does it say about us and the way we see women performers? Perhaps stand-up comedy is war, and women can only work in it as spies.