Bet you didn't know that about her, did you? Years ago I saw her interviewed on a show (it might have been 60 Minutes) and she revealed her return to this interest of her younger years by playing the Two-part Invention in F (what else?). Since I can also do that, I was not impressed, but apparently she was at least a little better than that.
The New York Times
August 20, 2012
Laughs Were on Her, by Design
By RICHARD SEVERO and PETER KEEPNEWS
Phyllis Diller, whose sassy, screeching, rapid-fire stand-up comedy helped open the door for two generations of funny women, died on Monday at her home in Brentwood, Calif. She was 95.
Her agent, Fred Wostbrock, confirmed her death.
Ms. Diller, who became famous for telling jokes that mocked her odd looks, her aversion to housekeeping and a husband she called Fang, was far from the first woman to do stand-up comedy. But she was one of the most influential. There were precious few women before her, if any, who could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or overpower an audience with such an outrageous personality.
One chestnut: “I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they’d boo.”
Another: “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’ ”
Ms. Diller, a 37-year-old homemaker when she took up comedy, mined her domestic life for material, assuring audiences that she fed Fang and her kids garbage soup and buried her ironing in the backyard. She exuded an image that was part Wicked Witch of the West (a role she actually played in a St. Louis stage production of “The Wizard of Oz”) and part clown.
In her many television appearances she would typically sashay onstage wearing stiff, outsize, hideous metallic dresses (she did this, she said, so she could lie to her audiences about the state of her body, which was really trim and shapely); high-heeled shoes or boots studded with rhinestones; and a bejeweled collar better suited to a junkyard dog or a fur scarf that she claimed was made from an animal she had trapped under the sink.
Slinking along on skinny legs, her feet invariably pointed outward, penguin-style, she originally carried a long bejeweled cigarette holder that held a make-believe cigarette from which she continually flicked imaginary ashes. (Ms. Diller, who did not smoke, later discarded the cigarette holder.)
Her hair was the blond flyaway variety, sometimes looking as if it was exploding from her scalp; her eyes were large and ferocious, her nose thin and overlong (she ultimately tamed it through plastic surgery). And then there was that unforgettable, ear-shattering voice, which would frequently explode into a sinister cackle that seemed perfectly matched to her image as the ultimate domestic demon.
Among Ms. Diller’s few female predecessors was Jean Carroll, sometimes called “the female Milton Berle,” who made numerous appearances in nightclubs and on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, where she mined her marriage and family for laughs. There were others: Minnie Pearl was an outrageous Southern spinster, Moms Mabley an outspoken black philosopher.
But Ms. Diller’s hard-hitting approach to one-liners — inspired by Bob Hope, who became an early champion — was something new for a woman. Her success proved that female comedians could be as aggressive or unconventional as their male counterparts, and leave an audience just as devastated. She cleared the way for the likes of Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and numerous others.
Although Ms. Diller used writers to help create her act, she estimated that she wrote 75 percent of the jokes herself. Her approach to humor was methodical. “My material was geared towards everyone of all ages and from different backgrounds, and I wanted to hit them right in the middle,” she explained in her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy” (2005), written with Richard Buskin. “I didn’t want giggles — I could get those with my looks — I wanted boffs, and I wanted people to get the joke at the same moment and laugh together. That way I could leave everything to my timing.”
She liked jokes that piled on the laughs in rapid succession. A favorite of hers was this one: “I realized on our first wedding anniversary that our marriage was in trouble. Fang gave me luggage. It was packed. My mother damn near suffocated!”
Phyllis Ada Driver was born on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio, the daughter of Perry Driver, an insurance executive, and the former Frances Ada Romshe. As a child she became interested in classical music, writing and theater.
After briefly attending the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago, she entered Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, near Lima, with thoughts of becoming a music teacher. She met Sherwood Anderson Diller in her senior year in college, and they were married in 1939.
She never taught music. The Dillers moved to California, where he was an inspector at a Navy air station and later held various other jobs — none, by Ms. Diller’s account, for very long. They struggled financially, even with Ms. Diller working. She wrote a shopping column for a newspaper in San Leandro and advertising copy for a department store in Oakland, then moved on to writing and promotion jobs at radio stations in Oakland and San Francisco.
She started to move toward a career in show business without realizing it. She was poor and unhappy, and she would meet other poor and unhappy women at the Laundromat and regale them with accounts of her home life. She also tried to inject humor into the advertising and publicity copy she wrote. Word spread about Phyllis Diller, and soon she was being asked to give presentations at parties and P.T.A. meetings.
Her husband thought she should be paid to make people laugh. She lacked the confidence to do it until she read a self-help book, “The Magic of Believing” by Claude M. Bristol. Inspired by its message of empowerment, she began to write her own comedy routines, hired a drama coach to give her more stage presence, and took whatever paid or unpaid performing jobs she could get: at hospitals, women’s clubs, church halls.
She made her bona fide professional debut at the Purple Onion, a San Francisco nightclub, in 1955. At first her act contained as much singing as joke-telling, with Ms. Diller’s persona more mock sophisticate than housewife from hell — her signature numbers included “Ridiculous,” a parody of the Eartha Kitt number “Monotonous” — but she gradually developed the character and the look that would make her famous.
She was soon being booked at nightclubs all over the country, and she became nationally known after several dozen appearances on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” beginning in 1958.
She was believable as well as hilarious when she talked about her husband, Fang; her mother-in-law, Moby Dick; and her sister-in-law, Captain Bligh. She was so believable that shortly after she divorced Sherwood Diller in 1965, his mother and sister sued her for defamation of character in an effort to keep her from talking about them in her act. She insisted that she was talking about a fictional family, not them, and eventually settled out of court.
Ms. Diller was never really the grotesque-looking woman she made herself out to be; her body, in fact, was attractive enough that when she posed nude for a Playboy photo spread the pictures ended up not being published — the magazine was going for laughs, and decided that they looked too good to be funny.
And despite her self-deprecating humor, she was concerned about her looks, especially as she began to detect signs of aging in her television appearances in the early 1970s. She became one of the first celebrities not just to have plastic surgery but also to acknowledge and even publicize that fact. By the 1990s she had had more than a dozen operations, including two nose jobs, three face-lifts, a chemical peel, a breast reduction, cheek implants, an eyeliner tattoo and bonded teeth.
She never tried to conceal the work and even kept a plastic surgery résumé, which she would give to anyone who asked. And she continued to make jokes about her appearance. “The ugly jokes would remain a part of my act because my image was already so well established,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Audiences had bought into it because, facially at least, it had been the truth, and for them it would continue to be the truth.”
Although Ms. Diller was a frequent guest on other people’s variety shows, her own network television ventures — “The Pruitts of Southampton” (1966-67), a sitcom, and “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” (1968), a variety hour — were both short-lived. Late in life she had a recurring role on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” and did voice-over work on “Family Guy” and other cartoon shows.
Her movie career was not particularly distinguished. While she made a number of films, including three with Bob Hope — “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” (1966), “Eight on the Lam” (1967) and “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell” (1968) — none were as funny as she was.
But her career was not limited to movies, television or stand-up comedy. Between 1971 and 1981 she appeared as a piano soloist with some 100 symphony orchestras across the country under the transparently phony name Dame Illya Dillya. Although her performances were spiced with humor, she took the music seriously. A review of one of her concerts in The San Francisco Examiner called her “a fine concert pianist with a firm touch.”
She also appeared on Broadway, stepping into the lead role in “Hello, Dolly!” for three months in late 1969 and early 1970. She painted, too. And she wrote a number of books, including “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints,” “The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them” and her autobiography.
Her marriage to Sherwood Diller lasted 26 years; in 1965, the same year the Dillers divorced, she married Warde Donovan, an actor. That marriage, too, ended in divorce. She never remarried, but she was the companion of Robert Hastings, a lawyer, from the mid-1980s until his death in 1996.
Ms. Diller is survived by a son, Perry; a daughter, Suzanne Mills; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
When she appeared in Las Vegas in May 2002, three years after suffering a heart attack, Ms. Diller announced that this would be her last stand-up performance. She stuck to that decision. Her final performance was captured in the 2004 documentary “Goodnight, We Love You,” directed by Gregg Barson.
Asked by Bob Thomas of The Associated Press in 2005 whether she missed performing, Ms. Diller answered: “I don’t miss the travel. I miss the laughter. I do miss the actual hour.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m on dope, but that hour is a high; it’s as good as you can feel. A wonderful, wonderful happiness, and great power.”
This is about all I could find. It isn't great, but it has its moments.
There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach