By Steve Gorman – LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Comedienne Phyllis Diller, the former housewife whose raucous cackle and jokes about her own looks made her one of America’s first female stand-up comedy stars, died in her sleep on Monday at age 95, her long-time manager said.
Diller was found in her bed at her home in the affluent Brentwood section of Los Angeles by her son, Perry, who had come to visit her, manager Milt Suchin said.
“She had a smile on her face, as you’d expect,” Suchin told Reuters.
Her publicist, Fred Wostbrock, called her “a true pioneer” and “the first lady of stand-up comedy.”
A friend and fellow comic, Joan Rivers, said on Monday that Diller cleared a path for a younger generation of female stand-up artists to trade on their jokes alone.
“Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny,” Rivers said in a message posted through Twitter.
Diller created an indelible persona with her distinctive braying laugh, a cigarette holder, teased hair, outlandish costumes and a fictional lout of a husband she called Fang.
Her act consisted of rapid-fire jokes and one-liners that often spoofed social pretences by poking fun at herself (“I went bathing nude on the beach the other day; it took me 20 minutes to get arrested”) as well as a world of invented characters.
In addition to husband Fang – “What would you call a man with one tooth that was 2 inches long?” – there was her mother-in-law Moby Dick, her skinny sister-in-law Captain Bligh and her neighbour Mrs. Clean.
Diller prided herself on keeping her jokes tightly written and boasted that she held a world record for getting 12 laughs a minute.
A late-bloomer by show business standards, Diller got her start at age 37, making her debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion in 1955 as she broke into the male-dominated comedy circuit. Her first national exposure came as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.”
At that time Diller was a housewife who had raised five children, as well as a newspaper columnist, publicist and radio writer.
She discovered a flair for stand-up jokes at school parent-teacher meetings and similar gatherings and decided to make comedy a career at the urging of her then-husband, Sherwood Diller. The couple divorced in 1965 and a second marriage to singer Warde Donovan ended 10 years later.
Diller gradually adopted the props, zany wardrobe and stage persona that would become her trademark.
FROM HOUSEWIFE TO COMIC
“If I showed you my opening night photo, I looked like the woman next door,” Diller once said. “And it took me a while to realize that people don’t pay to see the woman next door. They can look at her for nothing.”
A series of TV appearances followed and Diller soon became an instantly recognized star. She made her movie debut in 1961 with a small part in Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” and played the title role in a 1970 Broadway production of “Hello Dolly!”
Diller also developed a close friendship with the late comedy great Bob Hope and co-starred with him in three movies. She was a frequent guest on his television shows and accompanied him on a Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Another contemporary of Diller, stand-up veteran Don Rickles, saluted her as a “great comedienne” whose “memorable teaming with Bob Hope brought female comics to the forefront.”
Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that Diller was “the queen of the one-liners” and Whoopi Goldberg called her a “true original.”
Diller, who was an accomplished pianist, built a career around lampooning her looks but she also spent a fortune perfecting them. By her count, she had more than 20 plastic surgeries.
Diller, who titled her 2005 autobiography “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” counted her ability to laugh at herself as one of her greatest comic assets. In a 2004 interview with Reuters she said she regarded her audiences as her greatest teacher.
“I let them laugh with me, at me, which makes the audience very comfortable,” she said. “I’ve learned everything from them. … You’re a comic and you’re not a success until you hear laughter.”
In later years, she suffered from heart problems and fractured her pelvis in a fall but continued to work in clubs and on television well into her 80s. She provided the voice of an insect in the 1998 animated movie “A Bug’s Life, appeared in the 2005 comedy documentary “The Aristocrats” and supplied the voice of Peter’s mother in 2006-2007 episodes of the cartoon TV series “Family Guy.”
Suchin said she made a guest appearance last year on the daytime drama “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Diller and her first husband had five children.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott)