According to The Guinness Book of World Records, each time Phyllis Diller exploded onto a nightclub floor, she notched up 12 laughs per minute, twice as many as her mentor Bob ("Rapid Robert") Hope. Most of those laughs were directed at herself. ("I'm not wrinkled. I just had a nap on a chenille bedspread." ... "You know you're old when your birth certificate was a scroll.")
A raucous creature in yellow fright wig, feather boa and beads, Diller punctuated her one-liners with a wave of her long cigarette holder and a laugh that threatened to break the sound barrier. To hide her shapely figure, she wore sexlessly shapeless clothes ("I think I've got this dress on upside down!"). Although she appeared in 22 films and many television shows (including the scatological documentary The Aristocrats, 2005), Phyllis Diller's spiritual home was stand-up, and she reigned as its queen for more than four decades.
She was born Phyllis Driver, a surname that couldn't have been more appropriate: she once said, "I've never wasted a minute of my life." Her mother, who had tried unsuccessfully to pursue a performing career, urged her to succeed where she'd failed.
Diller studied ballet and the piano at Chicago's Sherwood Music School. While studying at Bluffton, an Ohio religious college, she fell in love with Sherwood Diller, a handsome classmate. After their marriage, she gave up her showbusiness dreams, and helped to support a growing family by writing a shopping column for a magazine. Her husband, however, wasn't a good provider. "He couldn't hold a job," she recalled. "He just sat there and drank beer all day. He couldn't even do that well."
When Sherwood lost his job as an inspector at a Naval air station, his wife took work as an advertising copywriter for KROW, a local radio station. "I auditioned for KROW as a broadcaster," she recalled, "but they wouldn't use me. To them, I was just an office girl."
While writing funny radio commercials and looking after her five children, she started performing for local church groups. Her husband urged her to work up a nightclub act. Referring to him as "Fang", she specialised in one-liners about married life. ("Fang and I just marked our 10th wedding anniversary on the calendar. And threw darts at it.") Her first professional engagement was in 1955, when the owner of the San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion offered her a last-minute two-week booking. "When I went on," she said, "the room went totally quiet, and I knew that I had this magnetic thing that you had to be born with. You can't buy it or even learn it."
After a record 89 weeks at The Onion, she made a successful television appearance on Jack Paar's Tonight Show. This led to a booking at the New York nightclub One Fifth Avenue ("The audiences there were small but indifferent"), and a negative review in Variety, which even misspelled her name as "Phyllis Dillen". An engagement at another New York nightspot, The Blue Angel, was even less successful, and she was appearing at a dreary little club in Washington DC when Bob Hope dropped in. Not only did he offer invaluable encouragement and advice, Hope used Diller in 23 of his television shows and three of his films. In 1966 he took her to Vietnam to appear in his Christmas show for the troops. His earlier holiday tours had featured voluptuous females like Raquel Welch, but the GIs adored the unglamorous Phyllis.
Success as the star of a TV series always eluded her; her sitcom, The Pruitts of Southampton (1966), was a failure, as was the comedy variety series The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. In the late 1960s she braved Broadway, following Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye and Betty Grable in the musical Hello, Dolly!. In 1971 she had the first of many well-publicised facelifts, followed by liposuction, cheek implants and a tummy tuck. "There are no two parts of my body the same age," she told her audiences.
Although Diller retired from stand-up in 2002, she continued to make guest appearances in sitcoms (last year she popped up in her friend Roseanne Barr's reality show Roseanne's Nuts), talk shows and even soap operas. In 2005 her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, was published. "I really didn't want to write my life story before," she said in a magazine interview. "It was just too painful to remember. My whole idea is to cheer people up. Happiness is a habit."
Her manager, Milton Suchin, said that Diller had died in her sleep, "with a smile on her face."
Phyllis Driver (Diller), comedian: born Lima, Ohio 17 July 1917; married twice (five children); died Los Angeles 20 August 2012.