Today we recall the late, lamented Phyllis Diller (1917-2012). Having started in nightclubs, radio and television in the 1950s, she was still making public appearances in the months before she died at the age of 95. in a career that lasted 60 years.
Diller was primarily a stand-up comedian, and her act was hilarious. In essence, her routine that she was a nightmarish housewife, a caricature taken to downright clown-like, grotesque levels. As a kid I associated her with Witchie-poo from H.R. Pufnstuf. She was that scary. But she was also a hilarious joke-writer, and her act, from soup to nuts was impeccable. She would have been perfect for vaudeville. And lest we forget, in 1968 she hosted her own-short lived TV variety show, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, to follow up on her short-lived 1966 sit-com The Pruitts of Southampton a.k.a. The Phyllis Diller Show.
That’s right, Phyllis Diller had her own sitcom! And it looks so good on paper. It was originally inspired by a Patrick Dennis novel (creator of Mame), developed and written largely by Addams Family alum, and was originally intended for Beatrice Lillie, but she was winding down her career at this time. In this high concept vehicle Diller played the matriarch of a family of rich wastrels whose IRS tax bill has now forced them into a life of penury, although the authorities have permitted them to keep up appearances so as not to spook the stock market. So (much like Green Acres) it’s a sort of Beverly Hillbillies in reverse, and a similar concept to the later Schitt’s Creek. Best of all the show was a who’s who of character actors: Reginald Gardiner as an aged uncle, Grady Sutton as a butler, both John Astin and Marty Ingels (reunited for the first time since I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster four years earlier), Richard, Deacon, Charles Lane, Billy De Wolfe (from the somewhat similar Doris Day Show), Hope Summers, and Gypsy Rose Lee, et al! Exteriors were show at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina — same shack they used in the 1980 film Being There.
Sounds “can’t miss” but it only lasted a season. Diller was a hilarious comedian, but perhaps she was considered a bit grotesque to anchor a series. And she wasn’t really an actress, though in addition to Pruitts, she did appear in a few films. She played Texas Guinan in Splendor in the Grass (1961). She plays “Camille Salamander” in one of my favorite movies The Fat Spy (1966), which I wrote about here on the occasion of her death. She’s a voice in the Rankin-Bass Halloween classic Mad Monster Party (1967). And she is in several Bob Hope movies — providing the comic relief (ha!). In fact, Diller provides the one saving grace in the otherwise tedious (and implausible) Bob Hope comedy Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966). Anyone who remembers the film at all knows the scene I’m talking about, when Diller, playing Hope’s housemaid, saves the day — on motorcycle! That image of Diller, in a pink housecoat and black sunglasses, her frizzy hair flying behind her in the wind, as she comes to the rescue on her hog (slightly sped up) is indelible, surreal — the stuff dreams are made of.
Diller never really retired. She was a constant or frequent presence on television through the end of the 20th century, and merely ceased live performance in 2002. In 2005 she astounded us all by appearing (and being hilarious) in The Aristocrats. She was 88 years old at the time.
To find out more about the history of show business, including TV variety shows, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy, please see my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube
She trotted her standup around the Package Stock circuit in the late 1970s, and I ran followspot from the balcony of the Ivoryton Playhouse for her one-week booking there (1978??). She was a delight, and changed it up a bit every night except for her staging: so tight to the mic for the entire set (an hour? there was an opener, I think) that I could lock off the Supertrouper and read a magazine. She tipped me $100 when she closed — a personal CHECK, which it broke my heart to cash (but I HAD to because I was 19 and my SALARY was $75 a week… )