Goodnight Phyllis, We Love You.

She was brash, she was bold and she was damn funny. Phyllis Diller took a road less traveled and in the process she helped pave the way for many female comedians who followed in her footsteps including Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Tina Fey. Comedy is still considered somewhat of a “boy’s club” but Phyllis Diller’s self-deprecating sense of humor helped her crack that glass ceiling and today she’s often credited for making the world a better place for female comedians to practice their craft.

Looking back I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Phyllis Diller was. Her gravelly voice, punchy laugh, fright wigs and outrageous style made her an unforgettable guest star on countless television programs that I regularly watched while I was growing up including BATMAN, GET SMART, ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, SCOOBY-DOO and THE MUPPETS. Diller was particularly effective in an episode of ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY titled “Pamela’s Voice” where she played the nagging wife of John Astin who returns from the dead to perpetually screech insults at her husband after he heartlessly murders her. Rod Serling’s humorous script presented Diller with a unique meta moment where she was able to use her unmistakable voice to generate terror instead of laughs. It might seem surprising that the comedian was able to switch gears so effortlessly but Phyllis Diller wasn’t just a funny lady. She was also a skilled illusionist.

The wife, mother and career woman who started life as Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917 didn’t share much in common with the funny character she created on stage. Diller didn’t smoke and the cigarette holder she always carried was merely a prop. Her husband ‘Fang’ was a fictional creation that didn’t resemble either of her two very real husbands. And while she enjoyed mocking domesticity Diller actually enjoyed being a mother. She also loved to cook and by all accounts was a terrific chef who referred to her kitchen as the favorite room in her house. She liked to come across as an uncultured and unsuccessful housewife but she was actually a whip smart classically trained pianist, a jazz enthusiast, an acclaimed artist and a brilliant gag writer who wrote all of her own material. When she was performing Diller appeared to be utterly confident and self-assured even while she was cracking jokes at her own expense but she was actually deeply insecure about her appearance. She eventually resorted to countless plastic surgery procedures in an effort to transform her face and body. Simply put, Phyllis Diller was a bundle of contradictions if you believed her stage persona was actually self-referential. Much like Lucille Ball who created the ditzy character of Lucy, Phyllis Diller created an imaginary stage character that acted as a filter for her jokes and had little in common with the real woman hidden behind the carefully constructed costumes and wigs. But Diller the woman and Diller the stand-up comic both had a generous sense of humor and I’m grateful that she was able to share that with us.

Phyllis Diller didn’t appear in many films but some of her best performances can be found in the movies she made with Bob Hope. Bob Hope was Diller’s stage inspiration and later became her dear friend and mentor. The two met in 1961 after Hope saw Diller bomb at a comedy club and sought her out to tell her how much he appreciated her act even if the audience didn’t. That moment changed Diller’s life and the two comedians went on to appear in three films together. Diller also performed in many of Bob Hope’s television specials and took part in Hope’s USO stage show where the two graciously entertained US troops overseas during the Vietnam War.

My favorite Phyllis Diller and Bob Hope film is BOY, DID I GET A WRONG NUMBER! (1966), which features Elke Sommer as a beautiful actress who mistakenly calls Bob Hope and asks him to help hide her from the prying eyes of the public as well as her thoughtless handlers who insist that she appear in nude bathtub scenes that she finds demeaning. Phyllis Diller generates many of the funniest moments in this silly ‘60s sex farce playing Bob Hope’s hapless maid. Both Hope and Diller obviously enjoy bouncing jokes off one another even when those jokes fall a little flat and the film works best when they’re exchanging sharp barbs or amusing banter.

Phyllis Diller often claimed that the best film she ever appeared in was the Rankin/Bass animated feature, MAD MONSTER PARTY (1967) and I happen to agree with her. In this charming Halloween favorite Diller gave voice to the Monster’s Mate (otherwise known as the ‘Bride’ of Frankenstein) alongside horror legend Boris Karloff who portrayed Baron Boris von Frankenstein. Diller’s distinct voice, brash personality and extravagant appearance often made her seem like a cartoon character that had sprung to life so she was a natural choice when it came to voice acting roles. Throughout her career many of her most successful screen appearances were in animated television shows and films such as SCOOBY-DOO (1972), A BUGS LIFE (1998), KING OF THE HILL (1999), THE POWER PUFF GIRLS (2004) and FAMILY GUY (2006-2007). But if you want to see (or hear) Phyllis Diller’s best voice work you’ll find it in the MAD MONSTER PARTY. Over the years it’s become a cult classic among horror buffs, Rankin/Bass enthusiasts and fans of stop motion animation. And Diller’s stand out performance as the joke peddling Monster’s Mate provides the movie with some of its funniest lines.

As of now, TCM hasn’t shown any interest in highlighting Phyllis Diller’s career in front of the camera and that’s somewhat understandable. She didn’t appear in a lot of critically acclaimed movies. In fact many of the films she appeared in such as THE FAT SPY (1966) are often heralded as cinematic failures and major box office bombs. But it would be notable and considerate if TCM used the unfortunate opportunity of Diller’s recent passing to celebrate one of modern comedy’s most enduring female performers. The movies she made might not have won any awards or gained her much critical respect but Phyllis Diller was a unique talent and a comedy legend who helped forge the way for many female comics.

Goodnight Phyllis, we love you.

Further reading:
- Remembering comedian Phyllis Diller
_ Phyllis Diller and Her Comic Craft
- Phyllis Diller Started in San Francisco
- Phyllis Diller was completely and inarguably herself

29 Responses Goodnight Phyllis, We Love You.
Posted By Saraeg : August 23, 2012 5:02 pm

Hi, Kimberly, Wonderful post and tribute to Miss Diller! I have seen some of her movies and, of course, Mad Monster Party! And yes, it would be nice if TCM did play some of her movies for a tribute to a wonderful lady and comedienne.

Posted By Saraeg : August 23, 2012 5:02 pm

Hi, Kimberly, Wonderful post and tribute to Miss Diller! I have seen some of her movies and, of course, Mad Monster Party! And yes, it would be nice if TCM did play some of her movies for a tribute to a wonderful lady and comedienne.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : August 23, 2012 5:16 pm

Not mentioned was Frank Tashlin’s The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell. I caught most of it on a TV broadcast. The film has many problems, and effectively killed Tashlin’s career, but was memorable for having Hope and Diller recreate the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : August 23, 2012 5:16 pm

Not mentioned was Frank Tashlin’s The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell. I caught most of it on a TV broadcast. The film has many problems, and effectively killed Tashlin’s career, but was memorable for having Hope and Diller recreate the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity.

Posted By Qalice : August 23, 2012 5:20 pm

I had the honor of meeting her once, not long before she retired. She was pure class, smart as a whip and deeply gracious.

Posted By Qalice : August 23, 2012 5:20 pm

I had the honor of meeting her once, not long before she retired. She was pure class, smart as a whip and deeply gracious.

Posted By John : August 23, 2012 6:16 pm

I remember seeing a Phyllis Diller movie at the drive-in titled “Did You Hear The One About The Traveling Saleswoman?”. Bob Denver, Joe Flynn and David Hartman were in it and it had a great score by Vic Mizzy. I remember liking it but haven’t seen it since 1968. Anyone else remember it? Is it worth seeking out if Universal ever makes it available through their on-and-off MOD relationship with Amazon?

Posted By John : August 23, 2012 6:16 pm

I remember seeing a Phyllis Diller movie at the drive-in titled “Did You Hear The One About The Traveling Saleswoman?”. Bob Denver, Joe Flynn and David Hartman were in it and it had a great score by Vic Mizzy. I remember liking it but haven’t seen it since 1968. Anyone else remember it? Is it worth seeking out if Universal ever makes it available through their on-and-off MOD relationship with Amazon?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 23, 2012 6:39 pm

Thanks for all the comments! It’s nice to know that others appreciate Diller too.

I like all her films with Bob Hope although BOY, DID I GET A WRONG NUMBER! is my favorite. I think I’m just a sucker for Hope and Diller in general so I can watch them in just about anything.

I haven’t had a chance to see DID YOU HEAR THE ONE ABOUT THE TRAVELING SALESWOMAN? yet so it would be if nice if TCM aired it soon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 23, 2012 6:39 pm

Thanks for all the comments! It’s nice to know that others appreciate Diller too.

I like all her films with Bob Hope although BOY, DID I GET A WRONG NUMBER! is my favorite. I think I’m just a sucker for Hope and Diller in general so I can watch them in just about anything.

I haven’t had a chance to see DID YOU HEAR THE ONE ABOUT THE TRAVELING SALESWOMAN? yet so it would be if nice if TCM aired it soon.

Posted By allworldissues : August 23, 2012 6:43 pm

Reblogged this on All World Issues.

Posted By allworldissues : August 23, 2012 6:43 pm

Reblogged this on All World Issues.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 23, 2012 8:28 pm

I am so glad you wrote about “Mad Monster Party”! It is the first thing that popped up in my mind when I think about Phyllis Diller! It is not played much on TV,well any channels I get. I loved the first time I saw it. It is really fun,and I kinda get a kick outta seeing all these different monster character thrown together. I remember there being a fairly “normal” boy character that sounded like Jimmy Stewart,if I’m not mistaken. It has been awhile since I last saw the film.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 23, 2012 8:28 pm

I am so glad you wrote about “Mad Monster Party”! It is the first thing that popped up in my mind when I think about Phyllis Diller! It is not played much on TV,well any channels I get. I loved the first time I saw it. It is really fun,and I kinda get a kick outta seeing all these different monster character thrown together. I remember there being a fairly “normal” boy character that sounded like Jimmy Stewart,if I’m not mistaken. It has been awhile since I last saw the film.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 23, 2012 8:32 pm

I am so glad that you acknowledged Phyllis Diller. I, too, cannot ever remember not knowing who she was.

I have seen FAT SPY, and it is indeed horrible, but she is actually funny in it. She adds energy to the flattest scenes imaginable, and her part is a complete non-sequitur, but she runs with it.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 23, 2012 8:32 pm

I am so glad that you acknowledged Phyllis Diller. I, too, cannot ever remember not knowing who she was.

I have seen FAT SPY, and it is indeed horrible, but she is actually funny in it. She adds energy to the flattest scenes imaginable, and her part is a complete non-sequitur, but she runs with it.

Posted By tksrants : August 23, 2012 10:23 pm

I am an illustrator. A few years ago I illustrated a magazine cover featuring the greatest comedians of all time interacting in a bar. I had Phyllis Diller being sprayed with a seltzer bottle by The Three Stooges. When the magazine was published I sent a signed copy to Ms. Diller. About 2 weeks later I received a sweet, handwritten note from Phyllis. She thanked me for including her among the greats. She also commented on how much she loved all of the detail of the artwork. She was one of my favorites before I did that cover….getting that sweet letter from her only sealed the deal. That note is now proudly framed and hanging in my studio.

Posted By tksrants : August 23, 2012 10:23 pm

I am an illustrator. A few years ago I illustrated a magazine cover featuring the greatest comedians of all time interacting in a bar. I had Phyllis Diller being sprayed with a seltzer bottle by The Three Stooges. When the magazine was published I sent a signed copy to Ms. Diller. About 2 weeks later I received a sweet, handwritten note from Phyllis. She thanked me for including her among the greats. She also commented on how much she loved all of the detail of the artwork. She was one of my favorites before I did that cover….getting that sweet letter from her only sealed the deal. That note is now proudly framed and hanging in my studio.

Posted By swac44 : August 24, 2012 7:56 am

Seeing Phyllis Diller on game shows, variety shows and Bob Hope specials was a big part of my childhood as well, I just wish I’d been able to see Mad Monster Party when I was the right age for it, I didn’t catch up with that Rankin-Bass treasure until much later, in the DVD era. Which is a shame because in my youngest years I was monster-mad, constantly drawing Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy based on my viewings of the Munsters and my friend’s Aurora model kits (I wasn’t allowed to watch the actual movies, supposedly they’d give me nightmares, we’re talking age 5 or 6 here, although I did manage to catch a few episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which did give me nightmares, so there you go).

Something I’d be very curious to see is Diller’s short-lived sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton, from the late ’60s, where she played the matron of a posh society family that had fallen on hard times, and every week she’d come up with a wacky scheme to put some money in the family coffers or keep the IRS at bay. I haven’t seen it myself, it sounds like a reverse version of The Beverly Hillbillies, but I’m sure with pros like Charles Lane and Richard Deacon in the cast it would be worth revisiting.

Here are the opening credits, sung by Diller, which are pretty funny (and sound suspiciously like Woody Guthrie’s Howdy Do): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–fk7HzTipI

Posted By swac44 : August 24, 2012 7:56 am

Seeing Phyllis Diller on game shows, variety shows and Bob Hope specials was a big part of my childhood as well, I just wish I’d been able to see Mad Monster Party when I was the right age for it, I didn’t catch up with that Rankin-Bass treasure until much later, in the DVD era. Which is a shame because in my youngest years I was monster-mad, constantly drawing Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy based on my viewings of the Munsters and my friend’s Aurora model kits (I wasn’t allowed to watch the actual movies, supposedly they’d give me nightmares, we’re talking age 5 or 6 here, although I did manage to catch a few episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which did give me nightmares, so there you go).

Something I’d be very curious to see is Diller’s short-lived sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton, from the late ’60s, where she played the matron of a posh society family that had fallen on hard times, and every week she’d come up with a wacky scheme to put some money in the family coffers or keep the IRS at bay. I haven’t seen it myself, it sounds like a reverse version of The Beverly Hillbillies, but I’m sure with pros like Charles Lane and Richard Deacon in the cast it would be worth revisiting.

Here are the opening credits, sung by Diller, which are pretty funny (and sound suspiciously like Woody Guthrie’s Howdy Do): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–fk7HzTipI

Posted By swac44 : August 24, 2012 8:04 am

Weird, here’s a whole episode of The Pruitts of Southampton, retitled The Phyllis Diller Show (maybe for syndication?), and with guest John Astin. It’s in black and white, but still watchable:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBhcw_qO3Y0

Brought to you by Lark Cigarettes! (Although Stan Freberg should have sued for their lame use of the William Tell Overture, Geno’s Pizza Rolls this ain’t.)

Posted By swac44 : August 24, 2012 8:04 am

Weird, here’s a whole episode of The Pruitts of Southampton, retitled The Phyllis Diller Show (maybe for syndication?), and with guest John Astin. It’s in black and white, but still watchable:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBhcw_qO3Y0

Brought to you by Lark Cigarettes! (Although Stan Freberg should have sued for their lame use of the William Tell Overture, Geno’s Pizza Rolls this ain’t.)

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 24, 2012 5:08 pm

Thanks again for all the comments, folks! I appreciate that you’re sharing stories about Phyllis and it’s nice to know she has so many admirers.

swac – I’ve never seen The Pruitts of Southampton and I never saw any episodes of The Phyllis Diller Show so thanks for posting the video clip!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 24, 2012 5:08 pm

Thanks again for all the comments, folks! I appreciate that you’re sharing stories about Phyllis and it’s nice to know she has so many admirers.

swac – I’ve never seen The Pruitts of Southampton and I never saw any episodes of The Phyllis Diller Show so thanks for posting the video clip!

Posted By Neville Ross : August 25, 2012 9:57 pm

@swac44 & Kimberly Lindbergs: The Phyllis Diller Show is indeed The Pruitts of Southampton-only it wasn’t renamed for syndication, it was renamed because The Pruitts of Southampton was a dismal failure, and so they decided to change the format and the name (slightly) to The Phyllis Diller Show to capitalize on the one good thing about it, Phyllis Diller!

Diller herself hated the show, and when asked about it in later years during the course of an interview with a radio station in Toronto, she dismissed it by saying ‘Oh, that show…’ and the interviewer knew better than to press further.

All the same, her death came as a shock even though she was in her 80′s, and I’ll miss her.

Posted By Neville Ross : August 25, 2012 9:57 pm

@swac44 & Kimberly Lindbergs: The Phyllis Diller Show is indeed The Pruitts of Southampton-only it wasn’t renamed for syndication, it was renamed because The Pruitts of Southampton was a dismal failure, and so they decided to change the format and the name (slightly) to The Phyllis Diller Show to capitalize on the one good thing about it, Phyllis Diller!

Diller herself hated the show, and when asked about it in later years during the course of an interview with a radio station in Toronto, she dismissed it by saying ‘Oh, that show…’ and the interviewer knew better than to press further.

All the same, her death came as a shock even though she was in her 80′s, and I’ll miss her.

Posted By tksrants : August 26, 2012 9:46 pm

@Neville Ross-Actually Phyllis was older than “in her 80′s.” She was 95 when she passed away.

Posted By tksrants : August 26, 2012 9:46 pm

@Neville Ross-Actually Phyllis was older than “in her 80′s.” She was 95 when she passed away.

Posted By Ettia Tatum : December 12, 2013 11:53 pm

It’s great TCM had a tribute to Phyllis Diller showing some of her movies but it seems odd to me that both last year and this they did not include her in their year-end We Remember segment.
I thought at first maybe they forgot her like they did Jack Klugman but no, they remembered him this year but totally ignored her. WHAT’S THE DEAL!!!

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