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. When they made Phyllis Diller they broke the mold!
Not really an actress, 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 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.
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