Pioneer showed women how to stand up and be funny

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Looking like a cross between a female Ronald McDonald and the Wicked Witch of the West, hurling hilarious one-liners at an audience roaring with laughter, Phyllis Diller stalks the stage like she owns it. And for the past 46 years, she has.

Most recently, she's been in New York as a guest star in the off-Broadway comedy "Pete 'N' Keely." Diller accepted the offer "because it's a great show, great comedy writing."

Before Diller started honing her comedy routines in 1954, show business had never seen a woman work as a stand-up comic. Female comedy performers such as Sophie Tucker or Carol Channing sang cabaret numbers and dropped in a few jokes from time to time. Others worked with a male foil, like Gracie Allen with George Burns.

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"When I first started out, I had short, dark hair, and a very good figure," Diller says. "I looked like the woman next door, which I was."

Relaxing in her New York hotel suite in a stylish black-and-red floral dress and beige pumps, Diller adds, "I realized that you don't have to pay to see the woman next door. I had to become more theatrical."

So she forged a comic persona, lampooning her disastrous housekeeping skills, her miserable married life with fictitious husband Fang, and her sorry figure. "I developed these shapeless dresses, wacky boots, and this wild peroxide hair-do. I built a character."

As an only child, born in Lima, Ohio, young Phyllis Driver exhibited a remarkable musical talent, and frequently performed on the piano through her pre-teen years. Asked if music influenced her later comedy work, she lights up. "You just hit it! Comedy is all about timing. Comedy is for the ear. I think it's been the basis of my timing ability."

Another early influence was comedy on radio. "When I was a teenager, listening to Bob Hope, Fred Allen, the Fibber McGee and Molly Show," she says.

But it was only when Diller was "nearly 40" that she started her career. It came from a need to support a family.

"I realized that I was married to a man who could not hold a job," she states matter-of-factly. It was 1954, "and we were a family of seven - we had five kids - and we were homeless. So I got into the harness, and started pulling the load."

As a young housewife in small-town Ohio, "I was always picked for the job of coming up with something funny" for community and school programs. "They'd call me, I'd write it, and do it. Other people baked the cookies!"

She volunteered to entertain patients at the local veterans hospital, learning how to relate to an audience and how to sharpen her material. Gradually, she improved and got herself booked into San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub for a two-week engagement: It stretched into an eight-month run. Other bookings followed, leading to an appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show," hosted by Jack Paar. "That was a large part of my success," she says, crediting Paar with introducing her to a national audience.

The Paar show appearances created a sensation, as America for the first time saw a woman, alone, making jokes about the thankless routines that wives and mothers coped with day after day. Her material "was drawn from real experience - the neighbors, the cops, the kids, the dogs, the cats, the relatives, the husband. I had reams of material about ironing! Honey, I had been there."

Her acclaim led to more nightclub bookings, good and bad. She once found herself "in a place where I should not have been" at a Washington, D.C., club "with a line of six sexy girls who were supposed to mingle with the customers, who were mostly men. And here I am talking about kids and homemaking." And to compound the misfortune, in the audience one night was her idol, Bob Hope.

"He found me, and he thought I was a genius!" she laughs with that trademark guffaw. He watched her bomb graciously, but saw she had great material and invited her to perform on his TV show. "I'm the only person who was ever allowed to do a stand-up [routine] on his show," she adds proudly. The association led to parts in six of Hope's films, and a lifelong friendship.

"I also learned about doing really clean comedy from him," she notes, "without even a shadow of double entendre."

Her career skyrocketed, and during the past 40 years she has chalked up 22 films, hundreds of TV appearances including three comedy series, and countless nightclub appearances. Notable among this list is her dramatic role in the 1969 British feature "The Adding Machine," by Elmer Rice. "I loved it! It was directed by Jerome Epstein, Charlie Chaplin's protege."

She regrets the virtual disappearance of sketch comedy on TV, and abhors much of comedy's off-color nature today. She expresses admiration for women such as Lily Tomlin, Rita Rudner, and Wendy Leibman among today's stand-up comics.

As for young women considering a career in stand-up, she refers them to a remark "by either Steve Allen or Bob Hope, who said that if you aren't a comic by the age of 12, forget it.

"You have to know it in your heart."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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