Phyllis Diller, one of the first and one of the few female comic headliners of her generation, died Monday at the age of 95.
Diller performed in the persona of a crazed housewife. She usually dressed in outlandish, bad-fitting clothes with her hair teased into a disheveled mop. Then she'd fire off long strings of self-deprecating gags. She was so unattractive, she used to tell her audiences, that Peeping Toms asked her to pull her window shades down. Onstage, she called her husband Fang. Diller told Fang jokes like her male counterparts told wife jokes.
Diller got a late start as a comic — she didn't enter show business until she was a 37-year-old mother of five. She had already worked in public relations at a radio station and had written a newspaper advice column. It was her first husband who suggested she try comedy, because it appeared to pay well and they needed the money.
In an interview Fresh Air's Terry Gross recorded with her in 1986, Diller explains what her routine was like before she developed her persona.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Phyllis Diller, one of the first and one of the few female comic headliners of her generation, died yesterday at the age of 95. We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with her in 1986.
Diller performed in the persona of a crazed housewife. She usually dressed in outlandish, bad-fitting clothes with her hair teased into a disheveled mop. Then she'd fire off long strings of self-deprecating gags. She's so unattractive, she used to tell her audiences, that Peeping Toms asked her to pull her window shades down. Onstage, she called her husband Fang. Diller told Fang jokes like her male counterparts told wife jokes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
PHYLLIS DILLER: Fang, I got to tell you something else. The other night he was reading the obituaries and he said, isn't it just amazing how people die in alphabetical order.
DILLER: One of the kids asked him to spell Mississippi. He said the river or the state?
DILLER: I asked him to lower the thermostat. He put it six inches above the floor.
DILLER: His father told him to ride bareback. He took off his pants.
DILLER: He thinks a Royal flush is the john at Buckingham Palace.
DILLER: I told him we leak in gas pipe. He put a pan under it.
DILLER: Somebody wanted him to be a Jehovah's Witness. He said I didn't even say the answer.
DILLER: And now he's become paranoid and I know exactly how it happened. He went to the mall, went up to the map and the map said you are here. He wants to know how they knew.
GROSS: Phyllis Diller got a late start as a comic - she didn't enter show business until she was a 37-year-old mother of five, who had already worked in public relations at a radio station and had written a newspaper advice column. It was her first husband who suggested she try comedy because it appeared to pay well and they needed the money. In 1986, when she was 69, I asked her what her routine was like when she was starting out before she developed her persona.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: What was your routine like?
DILLER: It was very different because I have no idea what I was doing, therefore I was terribly different. There were no female comics around. I was it. I didn't know that. But I had no precedent. I had never seen anything, except in what had seen on the days of early television, in black and white, like Milton Berle, Morey Amsterdam, Art Carney; all men. And there were. And so I was drawing on my background, my educational background. I did, I did the spoof of a concert - a classical concert. I started with Handel, went through German leader and I did the German and then I did phony captions, you see. I did a parody of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" by Gian Carlo Menotti and in my version her son had lost all his marbles.
I did Yma Sumac. At that time I had a very high voice, and my drum was an oatmeal box and I had it band on my head with baby shoes and bottle caps. It was madness. I didn't have any idea. I made fun of current high fashion. And finally, little by little by little I got material - little by little. I used to read Dear Abby columns and change a few words to make them silly.
GROSS: How did you start telling stories about Fang, the husband that you use in your routines?
DILLER: That was an ad-lib. I remember in the Purple Onion when I was searching for material, trying out new things every night and I had a bit about having had an accident in the car - his car, of course - and how I was calling home after the accident to tell old Fang face because the minute you're in trouble he's the, the heavy. And I worked on it and realized that I was on to something because this idiot that I portray on stage has to have a husband, and he's got to be even more idiotic than I.
GROSS: All the men comics of the period were telling wife jokes. Was this your answer to wife jokes, to do husband jokes about Fang?
DILLER: Not, not consciously. It's just you do on stage whatever is going to get laughs. I was just simply testing, trying everything out. I didn't do anything consciously. I just wanted laughs, that's all.
GROSS: Did people assume that Fang really was your husband and that you had this like absolutely crazy husband?
DILLER: Well, they still do.
DILLER: Every time I'm seen with a man, they say are you Fang? Everybody wants to meet Fang. Everybody wants to see Fang. Everybody is interested in Fang. They love him. I've built a monster.
GROSS: How did your husband feel knowing that people would assume that he was Fang?
DILLER: My first husband adored the idea of being known as Fang. He loved it. He had stationery made up with nothing but Fang on it.
DILLER: And he liked it very, very much. He, I guess it gave him some sort of importance, which he enjoyed.
GROSS: Did you keep telling Fang jokes after your divorce? Because as a celebrity your divorce would've been reported on all the papers and people might've assumed, well, she divorced Fang so now there has to be a new husband in her routines.
DILLER: Oh, let me tell you how serious that was. At that time Red Skelton, who was a, had become a mad fan of mine, as I was of him all my life, as a child even, he had contracted to do a Phyllis and Fang sitcom with me. And he gave - I- they gave me $30,000 of holdeo(ph) money. In other words, everybody wanted me at this time; I was hot as a pistol. So they held me till I could get it all together. During that period I divorced Sherwood Diller and they said keep the money and scrap the idea. That's how they felt. You see, everybody felt that if I divorced Fang my career was over. Aren't people stupid?
GROSS: Well, let's talk about the character you invented for yourself for on stage.
DILLER: Oh, how about her?
GROSS: Yeah. OK. Describe the way you will typically come out for a performance.
DILLER: Like a maniac, dressed silly with silly hair, funny little boots, little gloves. All clowns wear gloves - even Mickey Mouse. And I wear clothes, the little tiny short gloves and a little short dress and that's it. It's a funny persona. And this woman is an idiot, you know, she's a harridan. She comes out, she's telling everybody what's wrong with everything, you know.
GROSS: How did you develop her?
DILLER: Little by little by little. It's called evolution. Started out like the woman next door - brown hair, dress off the rack. Please.
So slowly you started to come out more crazy, almost disheveled looking. I mean, your hair would just be this teased mop on top of your head. A wig, I assume.
DILLER: No, that was my real hair.
GROSS: Was it your real hair?
DILLER: Oh, yes. Now here's the way that happened. I had bleached it for so many years when I decided I had to be theatrical. You're on stage. For goodness sakes, woman, don't look like the woman next door, look theatrical. So the first thing I did was bleach my hair. And I did it myself for time reasons and money reasons. I just stripped it, OK? I ruined it.
Now I decide I better save my hair so I go to a famous scalp clinic in New York and they gave me a curry comb and I'm supposed to brush it. And I had very short hair. See, they said now, lean over and do this. Well, I leaned over and did it between interviews and I'd be on television, my hair standing straight up.
And you know what? People liked it. It caught on. That's how it was invented. You see, it was an accident. I would never have thought of that.
GROSS: So you designed your own image. You designed your own clothes, too? Did you decide what to wear on stage?
DILLER: Well, you see, I used to dress pretty square, pretty straight. The first few years I wore actual - one year I wore Chanel suits. Another year I wore a Balmain suit. And they were satin and shiny and I realized I had to wear something shapeless or I couldn't make jokes about my body.
GROSS: Because your body was too nice?
DILLER: That's right.
DILLER: I hate to tell you that. So then I invented shapelessness and to this day I wear shapeless things so that I can tell them anything I want about my body.
GROSS: One of the things you've always done is laugh at your own jokes.
GROSS: And it's an incredible laugh, especially on TV. Your mouth opens so wide when you're laughing. How did you develop that? Because it's unusual for a comedian to do that. It's the opposite of Jack Benny, for instance, who'd tell a joke and just turn his head a little bit and look away from the camera and raise his eyebrow.
DILLER: Well, you see, at first it was nerves. I laughed because I was very nervous and probably subconsciously I was showing the audience here's where you're supposed to laugh. I don't laugh anymore at all in my act.
DILLER: None. Because to get 12 laughs a minute, as I do, there would be no time for a laugh.
GROSS: My guest is comedian Phyllis Diller. Was it kind of a novelty for people to have a woman comedian?
DILLER: Must've been.
GROSS: There were some other women comics. I think there's like Selma Diamond.
DILLER: But wait.
DILLER: She's not a stand up comic.
GROSS: She's done routines.
DILLER: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Look.
GROSS: OK. Go ahead.
DILLER: Wait. Let me explain. There are three categories.
DILLER: Comic actress. Comic. Now, comic implies stand up responsible for your own material. You work in one in front of a curtain alone. No props, no music. Comedienne might use props, costume changes, dancing boys, dancing girls, and probably doesn't write all the material.
Comic actress would be Lucy Ball, Carol Burnett. It's always written for them. It's a sketch, a movie, a play and they work ensemble. See, this alone-ness and just talking is what a comic is.
GROSS: It's important to you to write your own material. You've always written most of your own material, right? Had you ever thought about, you know, hiring writers, making your life easier? Had you tried that?
DILLER: Well, I do. I always have. Once I could afford it. Naturally, everyone would. Does.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So initially you wrote your own material.
DILLER: All of it. Now I write 60 percent.
GROSS: Can you think of a line or anything that really caught you as soon as you opened up the mail and said I've got to have that writer?
DILLER: The greatest line I ever bought was buried in five pages of single spaced typewritten copy. And it was buried in a form that no one in their right mind could use because it wasn't even funny. The way the fellow sent it to me, he was obviously young. And remember, there was five pages of garbage. But I read all that. And I found this line.
This line was - but here's the way he had it couched: A guy was in a gutter bleeding after an accident a cop kicks him. Isn't that awful?
DILLER: But the line - get the line: He lost so much blood his eyes cleared up. That's a funny line. Providing it's set up properly.
GROSS: So how'd you set it up?
DILLER: In my act, Fang, who's a drunk and shakes cut himself shaving, lost so much blood his eyes cleared up.
GROSS: That's good. Right.
We're listening back to a 1986 interview with comic Phyllis Diller. She died yesterday at the age of 95. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the 1986 interview I recorded with comic Phyllis Diller. She died yesterday at the age of 95.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: In your routines you do pretty rapid fire.
DILLER: Well, 12 laughs a minute is as fast as anyone can talk.
GROSS: How do you build it up? Is there a model that you have about how jokes should build and when the capper should come on?
DILLER: Oh, yes. The final word must be the joke word, must be the operative word. The final word should end in an explosive consonant. Like pop. Or park. Or kook. You understand? There are mellifluous words. Mellifluous is one of them. It flows. It's pretty. You know, it's one of those lovely words like lavender.
You want something strong and pop at the end. Like a shot. For years and years and years people likened my delivery to machine gunfire.
GROSS: Is there a rule of thumb you use about how many you can tell in a row like that before changing the subject?
GROSS: A sense of rhythm about that?
DILLER: You find that out by doing them. You have a whole - you want to do as many as you can on one subject because, you see, it's economy. You have one setup and then all the tag, tag, tag, tag, tag. You don't have to repeat the setup. Because every time you do a tag it has to have a setup. But if you could have one setup and then as many as possible lines.
But there is a limit to how many they will take on one character.
GROSS: Can you give an example of the setup and a few tags?
DILLER: Well, she's so fat that. That's your setup. And then you've got all these tags. Like sena-bada-dum(ph), bada-dada-june(ph), de-do-do-do-dun(ph). It's music.
GROSS: You recently had plastic surgery. Well, several times.
DILLER: All the time.
GROSS: All the time?
What have you had?
DILLER: Oh. Have you got an hour? I've had everything. I've had three facelifts. The latest thing I had that eyeliner put on, permanent tattoo. I had a chemical peel. I had a breast reduction. I had a tummy tuck. There's only one procedure I haven't had and that's liposuction surgery or lipectomy where they use a vacuum thing that was invented in Paris to suck out unwanted fat from places on your body where exercise doesn't effect.
GROSS: Why did you have all the plastic surgery?
DILLER: I was ugly. And beginning to look old.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well...
DILLER: Old and wrinkled and hangy.
DILLER: We're talking droop. Droop city.
GROSS: You never seemed ugly to me. I mean, you seem...
DILLER: Good. Good. That's because I was pleasant and I smiled and laughed.
GROSS: And it's because you had character. And, I mean, there's a difference between, like, the perfect nose which, you know, it's nice it's a perfect nose, and somebody who obviously has character and what you had was character. And whether you had the perfect nose or not wasn't really important.
DILLER: Number one, I couldn't breathe through that nose. One side was open because of an accident I'd had. But I went because of my chin. I saw myself on television and something was - I think it's called waddle. My chin was coming down. I didn't like it at all. And my eyes looked - I had circles on it. Not circles, puffs. Found out later that wasn't debauchery; it was fatty tissue. They plucked that out.
GROSS: If you had the perfect nose and lips and breasts and everything when you were getting started do you think you would've gone into comedy?
DILLER: Well, I did have the perfect breasts, the perfect figure, and my nose was crooked. Let me think. My teeth were crooked. Well, comedy is within. It has nothing to do with your appearance. My appearance helped because it was dysplastic. It helped. And then I made it help more by getting crazier and learning to be theatrical and things like that.
GROSS: So you have two personas, as you always did - one offstage and one on stage. And how are you dressing on stage now?
DILLER: Crazy. But chic. I mean, it's a satire of what is chic right now. That's the way I dress.
GROSS: Are you still talking about Fang?
DILLER: Oh, honey. So big in my act. He's one of my big numbers.
GROSS: Is Fang aging?
DILLER: Well, Fang is just Fang. See, the Fang things are he's stupid, he's drunk, he's dumb, he's an idiot, he never moves. These are the Fang things.
GROSS: Did you like wife jokes and how do you feel about them now?
DILLER: I think they're wonderful.
GROSS: You do?
DILLER: Oh, I think they're - I love jokes. I love comedy. I worked with male comics who - you've heard this. This is a classic because more than one comic I've heard say it. It's where he's married to the woman who's so neat, you know, so neat everything has to be perfect. And, you know, men don't like it.
The joke that I love - he got up to go to the toilet; when I came back the bed was made.
DILLER: Have you heard that joke?
DILLER: Isn't that wonderful?
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
DILLER: Can't you see this compulsive woman?
DILLER: Making this man's life miserable?
GROSS: The problem I've always had with wife jokes is that they always seem to be about the whole genre of women. Because there were never spouse jokes because until you came along there were no women telling jokes. So the joke was always on the woman and never on the man.
So instead of being jokes about married life or having this lifelong companion, it was always jokes about women, jokes about dames. And in that sense it seemed to put down the whole gender instead of, you know, talking about the tribulations of a long lasting relationship that men or women would have. Do you know what I'm saying?
DILLER: True. I know what you're saying. Well, and I did some good work, didn't I?
DILLER: I always have a cause.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
DILLER: Well, it's been such fun, Terry. I really love your show.
GROSS: Thanks. Thanks for being here.
That was Phyllis Diller, recorded in 1986 at the age of 69. She died yesterday at the age of 95. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.