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Phyllis Diller * An Appreciation
She was a late bloomer who became a legend.

Believe it or not, Phyllis Diller was already 38 years-old and a married mother of five (a sixth child had died shortly after he was born) when she made her stand-up comedy debut.

That was on a stage in San Francisco in 1955.  By 1962, she was appearing regularly on TV’S “The Tonight Show” and “The Jack Paar Show.”  And she never stopped or, it seemed, slowed down.  On IMDB—you know you have it bookmarked—a combination of her film and TV appearances, in movies and sitcoms or as herself, is so long it threatens to exhaust the downward-scroll button.  Her ascent to household name and icon status was so entrenched that, by the time the great lady left us in 2012 it was hard to recall a time she wasn’t with us. 

It was also, seemingly, far too early to fully remember or appreciate how cutting-edge, revolutionary and vitally important she was.  So, seven years on now, it is time for a reassessment…and for full canonization of her as a true feminist icon.

Though, today, powerful female stand-ups are everywhere (from Ellen to Amy, from Wanda to Whitney, from Kathy to Chelsea), there was a time when the stand-up stage was a strictly all-male domain.  Though various funny women had long been with us—consider Fanny Brice, Mae West and others—women as traditional stand-up artists, working with nothing but a microphone and an audience, were a slim, slim group consisting of Jean Carroll and Moms Mobley and very few others.

Then Phyllis Diller exploded on the scene and, then, soon after, she was joined by Totie Fields and then, of course, Joan Rivers, and then the boys club of comedy was really done for.

But Diller did more than just tell some good one-liners, Diller brought a distinct female POV to the comedy stage and cut a swath through societal norms that hit a highly responsive chord among American women.  And why wouldn’t she?  If hers was not the first to call total BS on the image of the “happy housewife” content with cooking and cleaning and serving her husband, hers was certainly the loudest up to that time.  And it would be a subject that, later, Erma Bombeck and Roseanne would continue to explore.  Moreover, Diller’s voice of dissatisfaction—though comedic in nature—was on the national scene even before much of her message got echoed in the revolutionary, scholarly ”The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s seminal tome and the platform from which feminism’s second wave was launched.

But Diller’s defiance did not end there.  From very early in her performing career, Phyllis turned her appearance into an on-stage canvas that was loaded in meaning.  Part of it was comedy, of course:  frock as ad hoc clown costume.  It was meant to draw attention and laughs from the moment she stepped on stage.  But it had a subtext as well.  Diller was sending up of the fashion and beauty industries and beauty ideals. 

But, years later, it was a trait that was turned against her—it got her deemed as being too self-deprecating, too willing to make herself the butt of the joke.  But, it should be noted, such other MALE comics as Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope did the same thing—making fun of their own bulbous or ski-slope noses; and Jack Benny always played up on such personal traits as his own cheapness and his own vanity.

But beyond humor, Diller’s crazy coiffure and gaudy get-ups were also weighted with another message as well.  The original “Mrs. Maisel” was also, always, like the “Handmaid’s” ultimate rebel:  from her outrageous wardrobe (she said once of one colored, feathered, bejeweled frock, “This is my slip.”) to her mile-long cigarette holder to her trademark Don King-blowout of a hairdo to, of course, that loud and proud cackle, this is not a woman willing to fade into the background; this is not one who will be ignored.

Diller was certainly never silenced…or silent for long.  Along with a heady plethora of TV appearances (on talk show, panel shows, variety shows and the game shows so prevalent all over 1960s television), Diller was also regularly heard on vinyl record.  At one time, long-playing comedy albums were a vitally important tool for comics in those days before cable television and the hour-long Netflix “stand-up special.” 

Every major stand-up (and a few very minor ones, too) released comedy LPs.  Diller released her first all the way back in 1959 with “Wet Toe in a Hot Socket,” and, later, put out the albums “Laughs” and then the rhetorically-titled “Are You Ready for Phyllis Diller?” and then “What’s Left of Phyllis Diller.”  (A brief sample:  On “Laughs,” she says, “My Playtex Living Bra died!...Of starvation!”)

 

Though her career would be extraordinarily long—it lasted from 1961 until 2012, a total of 51 years—Diller, somewhat surprisingly, only had one self-starring sitcom to ever call her own.  It was “The Pruitts of South Hampton” and aired on ABC for one fleeting season, 1966-67.

Produced by her own company—PhilDil Productions--the series was based on the book “House Party” by one “Virginia Rowans,” a pseudonym of Patrick Dennis’s, the author/creator of the immortal “Auntie Mame.”  That connection should not come as a surprise—Dennis loved his outre women.

The premise of the show was as outrageous as its star.  The Pruitts—Diller was the matriarch—were an outrageously rich and entitled clan who, one day, find out they are actually flat broke.

But, the US’s IRS is so afraid of what news of a Pruitt bankruptcy would do to the nation’s economy, that they allow (insist) that the family—at least to the public—try to keep up appearances. 

Hence, to the outside world, while the Pruitts were still on a level with the Rockefellers or the Vanderbilts, in “reality,” they were NOTHING and were, therefore, forced to curtail their lifestyle.  First, Phyllis and family had to fire their fleet of servants and then they had to close off all but eight rooms in their 60-room mansion.  Then, worst of all, they had to do their own cooking!  That is if Phyllis could figure out which was the oven and which was the washing machine!

 

On the surface, “The Pruitts,” as a program, had similarities to CBS’s then mega-hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  But instead of being about the very poor suddenly being turned very rich, the Pruitts were the very rich suddenly turned very poor.  In some ways, the program seemed to also presage the latter acclaimed documentary “Grey Gardens,” in its depiction of a once-grand family falling on hard times.  Watching episodes today it’s also easy to see certain “Ab Fab” elements—another tale of high energy and decant living.

Yet despite an at least interesting set up and an impressive supporting cast that included John Astin, Gypsy Rose Lee, Richard Deacon, Billy DeWolfe (not to mention guest stars like
Paul Lynde, Grady Sutton, and Louis Nye, among others), “Pruitts” was not a hit.  Even a mid-season re-tooling that put its star’s name in the title—“The Phyllis Diller Show”—and moved the locale to a boarding house did not change its course and, after 30 episodes, the show ended.

In many ways, this was not completely surprising.  For every stand-up star repackaged into a sitcom who did well—like Drew Carey, Tim Allen, the aforementioned Roseanne—many others were tried and disappeared quickly.  (And often, never to be heard of again…. Thea Vidal, Sue Costello….). 

But, notably, Diller wasn’t down for long.  After making her debut in the 1966 feature film “The Fat Spy,” just one year after the end of “Pruitts,” Diller would find herself in another self-starring, feature film comedy.  This one was titled “Have You Heard the One About The Traveling Saleslady?”

Sadly, “Saleslady” was no more successful, critically or commercially, than Diller’s TV effort was. 

But, again, that didn’t slow down Diller.  In 1969, she tried series TV again, this time on NBC, this time with an hour-long variety series titled “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”  But what worked so well for Carol Burnett, was a far lesser fit for Diller.  (Something that the comic freely admits to in her 2006 memoir, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.”)  And despite guest stars like Cher, Raymond Burr, Glen Campbell, Goldie Hawn and Johnny Carson, Diller’s variety hour endured for only 12 episodes between September and December of ’69 before being cancelled.

But…  Phyllis quickly returned to nightclub dates, touring in theatrical shows (including “Hello, Dolly”), performing as an acclaimed, concert-level pianist and authoring comedy books.  Among her titles: “Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual,” “The Complete Mother,” and “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints.”

 

She also continued with a TON of film and TV appearances.  Her guest-star roles range from “Get Smart” and “Laugh-In” to “Titus” and “Robot Chicken”!  Not to mention:  “Blossom,” “227,” “Cybil,” “The Jeffersons,” “Drew Carey,” “Nigh Gallery,” “The Love Boat,” “CHIPS,” “Full House,” “Tales From the Darkside,” and more…

 

Then, as herself, she appeared on every conceivable talk show, game show and an endless name of specials. 

Not surprisingly, Diller even got animated from time to time.  She was one of the celebrities who appeared on the original “Scooby Doo” series and later voiced a character in the big screen’s “A Bug’s Life.”  In between, she was also heard on “King of the Hill,” “Hey, Arnold” and even “Captain Planet”!

Diller passed away in 2012.  By that time she was more than a legend—she was an institution!  Unfortunately, like most of our intuitions, by that time we had come to take her for granted.  And at the time of her departure, it was hard to truly appreciate all she had done or been or represented.  What befell Diller was what befalls many who hang on to such a ripe old age:  she outlived most of the people who could truly appreciate what she did and those who could speak—insightfully and with authority—about the inroads and social statements she made, especially in her heyday. 

But that’s what happens when you live to 95 (!) and never slow up…or ever quiet down.

 

 

 

 
The Pruitts of South Hampton Theme

 

 

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