Be honest: You probably best know Phyllis Diller, who died yesterday at 95, as that crazy-looking woman in a fright wig that your grandmother used to watch on Ed Sullivan. And maybe you’ve now heard that she was “groundbreaking.” But to leave it at that would be a pat good-bye to a comedy legend. The first female standup to achieve megastardom — and who we’re still talking about 60 years after she first debuted at San Francisco’s Purple Onion — Diller is the prototype for modern female comics. It was Diller who proved that mainstream America could handle a woman who could carry a joke, and, breaking with a fifties culture of June Cleaver, skewered Ike’s postwar housewife ideal. And it was Diller, who through her self-deprecating schtick (“I love to go to the doctor. Where else would a man look at me and say, ‘Take your clothes off.’”) set the standard for how women in comedy would be dissected, analyzed, and defined for generations.
Yes, funny women existed long before Diller emerged in the era of Father Knows Best, but few of them performed what we think of now as standup. Before Diller, comediennes were more like Broadway stars — they combined song and dance with acts developed mostly on Vaudeville stages. Diller was different — not only did she come up in the intimate, smoke-filled clubs of San Francisco and New York, she did something female performers of the time didn’t do: She talked. No small feat in the late fifties and sixties. Even today, joke telling is considered a masculine form of humor — it’s funny like a guy, as they say — so for Diller to get up on stage, and get away with spraying her audiences with rapid-fire cracks, was in no small part due to her legendary talent for crafting a joke: “A joke has two parts—setup, payoff,” she told me in an interview for my upcoming book, We Killed: the Rise of Women In American Comedy. “The quicker you get to the payoff, the better. My idea is edit. If one word can do the work of five, now you’re talking. And there are other rules. The joke ends, preferably, on an explosive consonant — like cut. Certain numbers work in certain places when you’re writing a joke. You’ll have to find just the right number — whether it’s eight or eleven. Every word. No one realizes what a science it is.” Fifty-thousand of Diller’s carefully crafted punch lines are sitting in an old filing cabinet that she donated to the Smithsonian.
But in order to tell a joke like a man, she had to de-sex herself. And that’s where the self-deprecating humor came in. “To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience. So right away, you come out and kiss ass,” she told me. “The reason I developed things like [wearing a bag dress] was because I had such a great figure … I had ’em convinced that underneath whatever I was wearing, I was a skeleton, an ugly skeleton — and that’s what I wanted.” Her put-down style was not without controversy, especially among other women. As Diller told me, “Women’s libbers hated what I was doing. They came after me and they wanted to cut my head off. They didn’t like my self-deprecation. I was always putting myself down. I was always talking about how I was in my fourth year of a ten-day beauty plan.”
That self-deprecating style is one of Diller’s most persistent legacies, and casts a long shadow over woman-driven comedy. Among the qualities that critics like to evaluate in female comics is the level of their self-deprecation. Later Joan Rivers would adopt this style, and in 1987 Elayne Boosler complained to the New York Times that Johnny Carson’s bookers tried to foist that point of view on her: “I went in to do the Tonight Show, I had a beautiful set all prepared, and they put someone on my case to write jokes. I remember the first joke I was handed went, ‘I’m so ugly, I can’t make a nickel on a battleship.’ I just refused to do it.” When Janeane Garofalo emerged as the Gen-X It Girl of the nineties she was self-effacing, too — though her analysis-obsessed approach to personal shortcomings contrasts sharply with Diller’s costumed hyperbole. Even as recent a star as Whitney Cummings, the standup bombshell who doesn’t look funny at all, says she used self-deprecating comments and baggy clothes to ingratiate herself with audiences at the start of her career.
Whatever critics may say, Diller’s long shadow in the male-dominated field of comedy is unquestionable. At the time Diller was skewering Fang — the character she based off her real life husband, Sherwood Diller, a ne’er do well whom she divorced in 1965 — men were America’s chief breadwinners, while women were expected to perform housework and rear children. Stand-up comedy was a forum for men to air their grievances, with comics like Henny Youngman cracking take-my-wife jokes. Husband jokes may seem like cheap and easy material now (“Fang’s idea of a seven-course dinner is a six-pack and a bologna sandwich”), but only because Phyllis Diller dared to make and perfect them.
Taken together, Diller’s incisive material, unforgettable rapid-fire delivery, and self-deprecating barbs catapulted her to mega success and ultimately made her the defining female standup of the modern age. But as Diller made clear to me, for her it was just about the comedy: “All I worked for was the laughs.”