Phyllis Diller, the cackling comedian with electric-shock hair who built an influential career in film and nightclubs with stand-up routines that mocked irascible husbands, domestic drudgery and her extensive plastic surgery, died Monday in Los Angeles. She was 95.
Diller was among the first women to tackle the male preserve of stand-up comedy. She used her first husband for comedic fodder by disguising him as a fictitious character named Fang. Her jokes – roasts of his drinking habits, sexual shortcomings and professional failures – reversed traditional household roles.
Susan Horowitz, a stand-up comic and author of the 1997 book Queens of Comedy, called Diller a significant figure in American culture who rose to success through her wickedly self-mocking style.
Diller’s stage appearance was ghastly – and highly calculated. Operating under the belief that attractive women could not be taken seriously in comedy, she wore shapeless, short dresses, dyed her hair platinum blond (to reflect light) and teased it into an Einstein-like frenzy, feeding her persona of a crazed, incompetent ugly duckling.
Comedy is aggressive, Diller once explained. That’s why men used to hate women comics. That’s why there weren’t any. Women are not supposed to be bright, and there’s no such thing as a dumb comic.
Phyllis Ada Driver was born in Lima, Ohio, and studied at Bluffton College in Ohio with the hope of being a teacher. In her senior year, she eloped with a fellow student, Sherwood Diller, who came from a wealthy Bluffton family. They eventually settled in San Francisco and, in time, had six children, one of whom died in infancy.
To augment the family income, Diller began taking copywriting jobs for an Oakland department store and radio station. On the side, she discovered she had a talent for making her friends and neighbors at PTA meetings giggle as she joked about her harried domestic life.
Diller entered show business at 37, making her stand-up debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub in 1955.