Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Flappy Homemaker

I recently saw Comedy Central's roast of comedienne Roseanne Barr, and one roaster after the other ended their set in a similar fashion: by thanking her for being a trailblazer and for opening up opportunities for other female stand-up comics.

That's all well and good---Roseanne's successful, eponymous sitcom did indeed open up paths for other strong, sassy female characters on television.

But let's not forget who did Roseanne on stage before Roseanne did it.

Phyllis Diller kind of looked like Cruella DeVil on stage, with her long cigarette holder and her feathery boa and her wild, untamed hair. But Diller wasn't an evil, wretched woman---she was just funny, albeit sometimes in an evil, wretched way.

Diller would go on stage, as Roseanne later did, and complain about being a housewife. Diller called her husband Fang and he was the butt of a lot of her jokes. Poking fun at the defenseless, non-present spouse has always been a winner, whether the joke teller is male or female.

But good material works best with a good delivery, and Phyllis Diller, who died the other day at the very ripe age of 95, had one of the most iconic deliveries in stand-up comedy history.

Diller would puff on her long cigarette and poke her eyes out from the feathers and deliver her jabs at Fang and other targets, ranging from the mailman to cooking, and then punctuate many of her jokes with a laugh that was big, throaty and borderline mad.

Roseanne has a distinctive laugh, too---though I'm sure that's all coincidental.

Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio in 1917. She studied music and learned to play the piano quite well, but was intimidated by other pianists and dropped the thought of pursuing music professionally.

Watching her on stage, it's hard to imagine Diller being intimidated by anything. But she was, and so comedy became her second and, eventually, highly successful career choice.

She even lived in Ypsilanti for a time; her husband worked at the Willow Run Bomber Plant during WWII.

After a stint as an advertising copywriter, Diller's comedy career dawned along with television's role as an American pastime, in the early-1950s. It all started in Oakland, CA with "Phyllis Diller, the Homely Friendmaker," in 1952.

The stand-up career began in 1955 at a place in Southern California called The Purple Onion. She took the stage for the first time on March 7 and didn't get off until 87 straight weeks passed.

Then St. Louis became her home and as the 1960s arrived, Diller began appearing on other people's TV shows throughout the decade, riding the coattails of everyone from Jack Benny to Ed Sullivan to Johnny Carson. Bob Hope invited her along to entertain troops during the Vietnam War.

Throughout, Diller kept poking fun at herself, at Fang, and speaking of funny, it was funny that men laughed along with her, too---not just the fellow housewives in the crowd and watching at home.





This is because Phyllis Diller's humor was everyone's humor. Her perspective might have been female, but her jokes  were unisex. Men may have laughed at Diller because of her outrageous persona on stage; women laughed at her because they could relate to what she was talking about.

Like Joan Rivers (pre-plastic surgery), Diller overstated her bad looks. Like Rivers, Diller was no classic beauty. But, also like Rivers, Diller wasn't a dog, either, especially after some gentle plastic surgery of her own in later years. Through the wild hair and the boa and the mad laugh, Phyllis Diller wasn't an unattractive woman---certainly not the brutal looking one she made herself out to be.

To wit, an old Diller joke goes like this: She's running after a garbage truck pulling away from her curb. "Am I too late for the trash?" she'd yell. The driver's reply: "No, jump right in!"

Fang was fictional, by the way. Diller was married and divorced twice, and had six kids from the first husband. But neither spouse was actually Fang---that husband was her stage husband.

So I guess you could say that Phyllis Diller had three husbands---two real and one made up, for comedic purposes.

There wasn't much comedy in recent years from Diller---just lots of cooking, gardening and, believe it or not, painting. It was a quiet ending to what had been a rather loud life.

In typical Phyllis Diller fashion, she had some skewed advice to her fellow housewives.

"Never go to bed mad," she once said. "Stay up and fight."

Sounds like something Roseanne might have said. But she'd have been the second.

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