Phyllis Diller has never been afraid to do whatever it takes to get a laugh. With her hearty cackle and snappy, self-deprecating jokes, Diller truly paved the way for female comics and broke boundaries in terms of what ladies should and shouldn’t talk about. A natural comedienne with spot-on comedic timing, she created a persona with fright wigs and eccentric outfits. An audience favorite on The Ed Sullivan Show, few would guess that this small-town Midwestern girl was a mother of five who did stand-up to support her family.
After performing at various night clubs and on local television, Diller was discovered by Mark Leddy, Sullivan’s overseas talent scout, who arranged for her to audition in front of Ed. On November 27th 1960, she made her first appearance on Sullivan, and audiences loved her. In an interview, Diller remembers that first night that she “had just converted from being a comedienne to a comic and I was very proud of that. My material 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.”
Among her favorite topics were the issue of vanity and her self-proclaimed lack of beauty. It was a trait she reluctantly embraced and even stated once that “It’s very difficult for a pretty girl to be funny. When you’ve been beautiful all of your life, you don’t develop the right attitude. It’s an attitude.” Given this liberty to look however she felt, Diller would often grace the stage with odd dresses and funny wigs. Her signature cigarette that she carried onstage was a carefully chosen prop, and her husband “Fang” was imaginary.
“One night I asked Fang to kiss me good night, and he got up and put on his work clothes.”
Joan Rivers on Ed Sullivan also joked about women’s dress, marriage and husbands. Regarding Sullivan and the show in general, Diller had nothing but praise for the monumental show in saying, “I remember all of these things vividly. They were big things. They were almost like watching that first moon shot. They were big at the time because television was young and he just happened to be the right person with the right kind of interest in entertainment. He had that wonderful New York show biz feel and he had, obviously, I have to credit him with the editing and the pacing of the show. I have to give him credit for being the brilliant presenter of entertainment.”
The original domestic goddess, she made six appearances on Sullivan, joking about her mother-in-law, her dead-beat kids and even her own face-lift. Diller’s career post-Sullivan included TV and film spots, and voicing characters in animated projects. She released an autobiography in 2005, and remains active in her nineties.