Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 23, 2012
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.
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