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When Phyllis Diller died this week at the age of 95, much was made of the way she burst open doors for women in comedy. But she also showed a way for people to make a midlife crisis into a breakthrough.
Diller was an Eisenhower-era housewife in the smokestack-and-factory-whistle suburbs of Oakland, Calif., whose husband worked at the naval air base. They had five children and could use some extra income. Phyllis, who had been an art and music student in her youth, also had extra, unfulfilled ambitions to entertain. She volunteered at veteran's hospitals for the Red Cross.
"I played, sang, told jokes," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1982, "while they yelled, 'Leave us alone; we're already in pain!' "
She auditioned at The Purple Onion, a hip cellar club in San Francisco's North Beach, where the likes of young Woody Allen and Mort Sahl would make jokes about politics, pop culture and philosophy. They were young; they were smart, but mostly knew about what they had read and seen. Phillis Diller made jokes about what she knew — herself — and made the anxieties of growing older sound edgy, outrageous and authentic, like this one:
"Woman hits 40, going 90 miles per hour ... and boy that's a crack up. One morning she gets up and she looks in the mirror and she punches the panic button. She says, 'I've gotta be younger by lunch,' and she'll go through a whole list of idiotic ideas, like renting smaller children."
Just a couple of years later, she was a contestant on Grouch Marx's quiz show. Groucho seemed flabbergasted that a mother of five in her 40s would try to be a comedian, but after she told a couple of jokes, he waggled his cigar and said, "That was very good Phyllis, and I think you'll be a big success in show business."
And she was — for more than half a century.
Phyllis Diller's son, Perry, says he found his mother passed away in her bed with a smile on her face. I think she must have seen Groucho.