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Phyllis Diller, Frumpy Pioneer of Stand-Up Comedy, Dies at 95

Phyllis Diller, the frumpy comedienne whose jokes lampooning domestic life with her fictitious husband “Fang” laid the groundwork for a generation of female comedians, has died. She was 95.

Diller died today at her home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, her talent agent Fred Wostbrock said. He didn’t know the cause of death. In March 1999, Diller suffered a heart attack and doctors implanted a pacemaker.

One of the first widely popular female stand-up comics, Diller went from being a 37-year-old housewife to a professional jokester after her real husband lost his job. She created a character based on her own persona -- a disheveled, self- deprecating housewife --that would be used decades later by performers such as Joan Rivers, Brett Butler and Roseanne Barr.

Diller added to her fame through television appearances on Jack Paar’s show and Bob Hope’s specials. She also performed in numerous TV series, variety shows and specials in the 1960s and 1970s.

With frazzled, bleached-blonde hair, outrageous costumes, a long cigarette holder and a maniacal laugh -- which one reviewer said could “make strong dogs howl” -- Diller fired off as many as 12 punch lines a minute. She wrote her own material and steered clear of obscenities.

Comedian Phyllis Diller poses in an undated photograph. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images Close

Comedian Phyllis Diller poses in an undated photograph. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Comedian Phyllis Diller poses in an undated photograph. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many of those one-liners had to do with her looks. Calling herself “frumpy grotesque,” she was outspoken about her two facelifts, nose job, tummy tuck, breast reduction, cheek implants, under-eye lift, chemical peel and straightened teeth.

“I never liked the way I looked,” she said when she was in her 70s. “I used to be young and ugly. Now I’m old and gorgeous.”

In-Law Jokes

In addition to “Fang,” she created a fictitious mother- in-law, “Moby Dick,” and a sister-in-law, “Captain Bligh.” Her husband’s family sued her for $250,000 for denigrating him; the suit never reached court.

The American Academy of Plastic Surgery gave her the “Queen of Plastic Surgery” award for making the field more acceptable by publicizing her procedures.

Diller was the first woman honored by the Friars’ Club in Los Angeles and got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1975. She won numerous awards for her humanitarian work on behalf of medical and other charitable causes.

Phyllis Ada Driver was born on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio. The doctor who examined her mother initially thought she was a tumor, she wrote in her 2005 autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” and her father told him to “leave it in.” She said her father never showed her much more affection after she was born.

Lost Job

She studied classical piano at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music and received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Blufton College. She was planning to teach music until she married Sherwood Anderson Diller in 1939. She stayed home to raise five children in the San Francisco suburbs.

By 1953, Diller’s husband had lost his job. She worked as a copywriter at an Oakland department store and a writer/publicist for a radio station to support the family.

Because she had performed skits at PTA events, her husband encouraged her to try stand-up comedy. In March 1955, she gave her first performance, at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, a club where many new comics were discovered.

Booked for two weeks, she stayed for 89, quitting her radio job. Her time at the Purple Onion was threatened when several male comics, jealous of her success, conspired to get her fired.

Carnegie Hall

Instead of lashing out, Diller thanked the club owner for hiring her in the first place. The owner was confused by her unexpectedly calm response and took her back a week later.

Helped by her TV appearances, she was hired to headline major shows, including at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York City and Caesar’s Palace and the Tropicana in Las Vegas.

Diller credited Hope with starting her career. She appeared in three movies with the comedian and in every one of his Christmas specials from 1965 to 1994.

Diller made guest appearances as a classical piano soloist with more than 100 symphony orchestras from 1971 to 1982. She began painting in 1986 and created a studio after one work sold for $5,000 at an auction.

Her film credits included “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and she performed on Broadway in “Hello Dolly!” (1970). She wrote humor books, including “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints” (1966), and recorded comedy albums.

Last Performance

Diller and her first husband divorced in 1965. Her second marriage, to Warde Donovan, ended in divorce in 1975. She had five children: Peter III, Sally, Suzanne, Stephanie and Perry. When daughter Sally was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Diller battled to keep her at home. Eventually her daughter was institutionalized.

She retired from stand-up comedy in 2002, giving her last performance at the Suncoast Casino in Las Vegas. She continued to guest-star on TV shows such as “The Drew Carey Show” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Her autobiography, written with Richard Buskin, revealed many of the private hardships Diller endured over the years, adding fact to the fictional characters she created for her routines.

She told the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that she had no regrets that her stand-up days were over.

“I just wish I could think of something wonderful to say before I kick the bucket,” she said. “My sense of humor will be the last thing to go.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Heather Burke in New York at hburke2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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