Phyllis Diller in February 2007. Photo by Brian Hamilton. P.D.

Writer Watch

Phyllis Diller

Women just aren’t funny? Who said? When comedy legend and pioneer stand-up comedienne Phyllis Diller died on Monday, 20 August 2012, at the age of 95, it was the end of an era.

'I’m beyond saddened,’ Joan Rivers tweeted soon after. ‘We were friends – Melissa and I had a wonderful time with her at lunch just a month ago...The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.’

I was a teenager when I first saw Phyllis Diller on television in the 1960s, her hair looking like she’d been dragged through a bush backwards, and her skinny figure often draped in gold lamé or sequins and brightly coloured feather boas. She stood like a demented chicken intent on vengeance, waving a long cigarette holder and taking the Mickey out of herself. In Australia we laughed ourselves senseless.

Wearing her housewife persona, Phyllis Diller joked about her age, her appearance and her plastic surgery. Most of Australia was shocked to the core when she told us that she had had so many face lifts she now had a moustache. But, shocked or not, we kept watching.

Her enthusiasm for surgical enhancement resulted (after twenty-two years and seventeen procedures done by nine different surgeons) in a special award from the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. Despite the surgeries she insisted, ‘I like myself. I knew I was kidding.’

Diller’s abrasive laugh never failed to set our dog howling and this was fitting since her character’s (fictional) husband went by the name of ‘Fang’, who always seemed to be far more interesting than any of the husbands we knew. She swore that ‘Fang’ bore no relation to either of her two husbands.

Phyllis Ada Driver was born on 17 July 1917 in Lima, Ohio of German and Irish ancestry. She went to Lima’s Central High School and then studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Conservatory of Columbia College, Chicago, but decided against a career in music because she felt that her teachers and fellow pupils were far more accomplished than she would ever be.

Phyllis still played in her private life, however, and between 1971 and 1981 she performed as a piano soloist with over one hundred symphony orchestras as the character Dame Illya Dillya. Of her performance the San Francisco Examiner said, ‘As demonstrated in Beethoven’s piano concerto and several selections by Bach, Miss Diller is also a fine concert pianist with a firm touch.’

Phyllis Diller didn’t begin her comedy career until she was 37. She first appeared as a stand-up at The Purple onion in 1955 in a season that lasted 87 straight weeks, after which she appeared on The Jack Paar Show and later with such luminaries as Groucho Marx, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Benny. We loved her in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

After Phyllis starred with her idol Bob Hope in 23 television specials and three films in the 1960s her career really took off, and when she accompanied Bob Hope to Vietnam in 1966 with his USO troupe during the height of the Vietnam War, she was a smash. She went on to appear in an astonishing number of film, television and stage shows.

Phyllis Diller retired from touring and nightclub gigs in 2002 at the age of 84. She had suffered a heart attack and her health was not good. Her final stand-up appearance at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was made into a 2004 documentary entitled Goodnight, We Love You.

In 2003, Phyllis Diller offered the National Museum of American History some of her costumes, including a bejewelled cigarette holder, and a filing cabinet of 48 file-drawers that contained over 50,000 gags which she had typed onto index cards during her career.

Although she could no longer easily get around, Phyllis continued to work and she provided the voices for many animated characters in film and TV, including A Bug’s Life, Scooby Doo, and Family Guy.

In 2005 Phyllis published her memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse and a DVD version with early live clips and interviews with her showbiz colleagues was released in December 2006.

Phyllis Diller died in her Brentwood, Los Angeles, California home at the age of 95, leaving behind her a legacy of laughter and classic one-liners which has very rarely been equalled, We will remember her!


‘My Idea of exercise is a good brisk sit.’ – Phyllis Diller

From the Phyllis Diller 'Housework and Childcare' book. Thank you Anon.