Published August 20, 2012
It is so appropriate that on the very same day that Augusta National Golf Club extends its very first invitations of membership to women, a true gate-crasher is being remembered for breaking into an all-male fraternity: Phyllis Diller, who passed away at age 95, was a lady diamond in the rough world of stand up comedy.
In 1955, after doing radio for a few years, Diller took to the stage at The Purple Onion in San Francisco and was good right off the bat. So good that she ran for 87 weeks. She then went on to blaze an amazing trail for hundreds of women to follow over the next five-plus decades.
As a comedian myself, what I value most in a performer is originality and digging deep. A comic who exposes his or her deepest and darkest is the comic who stays with you after the show. That may seem obvious, but catch a few minutes of the next three comedy specials you see on TV, and sadly you'll see a whole lot of cookie-cutter stuff.
Phyllis Diller was awkward looking (enhanced by her own doing) and she talked about it. She was a terrible cook in an era when Home Ec for girls was more important than Phys Ed, and she talked about it.
Her laugh was not very feminine and certainly tough on the ears ... and she made that laugh her hook. At a time when an ideal marriage was the goal of every woman, she made hay out of her twisted life with her husband, "Fang." She did self depreciating humor before many male comics did.
She was a joke teller, as well as a story teller, where many comics are just one or the other.
Probably the most impressive aspect of Diller's career is the number of careers she made possible. The "if not but fors" attached to her are enormous. From Joan Rivers to Lily Tomlin to Roseanne to Ellen DeGeneres to Margaret Cho to Sarah Silverman and every female comic in between and going forward, Phyllis Diller was there first. (I won't hold Roseanne against Diller, how could she know?)
Phyllis Diller was unique. She was smart and brave. She demanded your attention and paid you back with huge laughs. She was all the things that make a great comedian.