Phyllis Diller: 1917-2012

Phyllis Diller, who died Sunday at 95, always struck me as the female Bob Hope. Her delivery and timing were very much patterned off Hope’s confident, straight at you patter. Like Hope the master, how she said things was usually funnier than what she was saying.
With Diller, you thought it was all about how she looked or what she said, but it was really all about how she sounded. Listen to her analyze herself after her very first national TV appearance, as a contestant on Grouho Marx’s You Bet Your Life.

 Her trademark cackle laugh–developed later–was used like Groucho’s cigar, a way to pause or punctuate a joke. The laugh was very infectuous as you can clearly see by the stir Diller made in an early appearance on the panel show What’s My Line?:

Diller, who was born in Lima, Ohio (where Glee is set), was very effective on TV in small doses. She shone in showcases like The Ed Sullivan Show, on game shows or on the Dean Martin comedy roasts. Her headlining series gigs, including the ABC sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton (kind of a reverse Beverly Hillbillies), did not go as well. Diller was more the cherry on top, not the cake.
In later years she became as famous for her plastic surgeries as for her comedy. She continued doing stand up well into her 80s. “You  know you’re old,” she cracked on her last live stage show in 2002, “when your walker has an air bag.”
I never had the pleasure of interviewing her one-on-one. She was supposed to be part of a PBS Pioneers of Television panel at the TCA press tour a year ago but was a last minute scratch. Word then was that she was gravely ill but Diller rallied.
Now, the comedy world has been de-Fanged. By all accounts she was a warm and well-liked entertainer, clearly evident by all the tributes pouring in this week.

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