We were truly saddened by the news that Phyllis Diller passed away on Monday at the age of 95. Who would have thought that the one-time 37 year old housewife and mother of 5 would become an entertainment legend and share stages with the likes of George Burns, Jack Benny and Bob Hope?
Phyllis Diller broke into the male-dominated world of comedy in the early 1950’s. She essentially began her career by telling jokes to fellow housewives at the Laundromat, where all of the women thought she was hilarious and encouraged her to give presentations at parties and PTA meetings. Eventually, it got to the point where Diller gained enough confidence to perform at nightclubs. She began appearing in various nightclubs and soon after was being invited to appear on local television. This exposure quickly made Diller so popular, that she was being booked for major television shows. The Ed Sullivan Show was one of them.
In order to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, comedians had to audition by performing a routine in front Ed, who would decide whether they were funny enough to be on his show. Phyllis Diller was brought in by talent scout Mark Leddy to audition for Ed, and sure enough Sullivan loved her.
On November 27th 1960, Phyllis Diller appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. That night, because of the holiday season, her routine was about Thanksgiving. “It was the first cohesive piece of material I had ever written. In other words, it was what we call a routine. And it was about stuffing a turkey… it’s amazing how many people go back that far in their memory to remember that classic bit where I stuffed it through the beak because it was the only thing open,” reminisced Diller about this performance in an interview. She was an instant hit on the show and the audiences loved her.
Diller, famous for her outrageous one-liners and jokes that mocked her odd looks, her aversion to housekeeping and a husband she called “Fang,” immediately became an Ed Sullivan Show favorite. In total, Diller appeared 6 times on the show between 1961 and 1970. In most of her acts, Phyllis Diller wore unflattering, metallic dresses with shiny high-heeled boots and funny wigs along with her signature prop cigarette that she carried onstage (even though she didn’t smoke).
Diller was one of the most influential female comedians of her era. Her career paved the way for generations of funny women including Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Ellen DeGeneres and numerous others. Joan Rivers on The Ed Sullivan Show followed in Diller’s footsteps by also making jokes about marriage, husbands and her appearance.
After Sullivan, Phyllis Diller’s career remained prosperous for over 3 decades. She worked in nearly every field of the entertainment industry – from television and film to voiceover work and even piano concerts (she was a trained pianist). Her last big-time stand-up appearance was in Las Vegas in 2002 at 85 years old. She remained vivacious until the very end.
Phyllis Diller broke ground decades ago, in an era where, as Joan Rivers stated earlier this week, “a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.” Diller ended the notion that not only beautiful women were worth being noticed.
Today, men still outnumber women in the comedy world; however, the women who have succeeded can be as nice as Ellen DeGeneres, as blunt as Sarah Silverman or as interesting as Whoopi Goldberg. Thanks in part to Phyllis Diller, they can be themselves.
Many of Phyllis Diller’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show are available on The Best of The Ed Sullivan Show All Star Comedy Collection DVD and on iTunes.