There will always be another Phyllis Diller. Yes, you read that right.
Phyllis Diller was not the first female stand-up comic, but she was the first to bring her act to the TV screen. Lusty women like Belle Barth were making the nightclub and hotel circuits with a brand of humor that would have made Ed Sullivan blush and gotten Jack Paar thrown off the air.
It seems hard to imagine this, but Phyllis Diller’s material, even with her outrageous look and laugh, would have been pretty mainstream, if (and this is a giant IF) she had been a man. Milton Berle was doing his act in drag, Henny Youngman shouldered a violin, George Burns puffed a cigar, and Rodney Dangerfield even got respect for his red tie and self-deprecating humor. But if there had been no Phyllis Diller, there might not have been a Joan Rivers, a Paula Poundstone or a Sarah Silverman ... and certainly no Roseanne Barr.
Yes, there will always be another Phyllis Diller. And, yes, that is high praise.
In last week’s column, I mentioned that 25 years ago after a Diller appearance on my television talk show, five local comics and I joined Phyllis at a local pub and talked shop: the tools of comedy, the nuts and bolts of doing stand-up, and how to hammer home a joke. I recently reviewed the VHS tape from that show, and searched my memory of that evening when she graciously responded to questions about her craft.
Q: How did you perfect your skill?
A: I practiced jokes in front of a mirror. I wanted to be sure my facial expressions and my movements were in sync.
Q: What’s the hardest part of stand-up?
A: All your training is in front of people. What could be more humiliating than that?