My daughter once asked me, “Dad, why aren’t there any GIRL comedians?” She was young and thought it was cool her Daddy told people jokes and made them happy. I tried to introduce her to comedy at this young age so we watched Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Jack Benny and the rest.
When she asked me about women who told jokes, only a few names came to mind. Like Pryor, Carlin and Bruce are the comedians men look to and aspire to be, there are only a handful of female comedy “icons”. You got Lucille Balls, and your Joan Rivers, and you got your Phyllis Dillers. Any female comedian today owes a debt to those three groundbreaking women and they owe a big debt, especially, to Diller.
Phyllis Diller wasn’t just a funny lady. She was FUNNY, purely and undeniably. She overcame the social convention that women couldn’t be funny in the most clever, iconic way possible and nobody has been able to do it since. She took the social conventions of femininity, sexuality, beauty, marriage, culture and motherhood, then twisted it through a comedic lens, creating the stage character we all recognize. The fright wig, the ankle boots, the cigarette holder, and oh, that laugh. Not only did she LOOK funny, but the material she wrote and performed was pure brilliance. And in doing so, she made it OK to laugh at… and with… a woman. Take a look at some of the things she was getting away with LONG before most people could:
Phyllis Diller was doubly blessed in that she got to hone her act in the fashionable Gaslight Square district of my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1950’s, but she was also mentored by the great Bob Hope, whom Diller credits with much of her success.
Phyllis Diller left us today at 95 years old. She kicked the door open for every female comedian working today and we will all miss her. I can’t be sure how, but if anyone could have made a joke out of their own death it would have been Diller, then she would punctuate it with that incredible laugh. "A-HAH-ha". She’s laughing now, I’m pretty sure. What a wonderful woman.
Bye, Phyllis. We love you.