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?
Q: Why do you think your style caught on?
A: It’s about everyone’s life. My jokes have nothing to do with what you have read, where you have traveled. Everyone must get the joke at the same time.
Q: How do you deal with hecklers?
A: I have no hecklers. My timing is so precise. A heckler would to have an appointment to get a word in.
Q: How many jokes do you tell in a minute?
A: I’m told it’s about a dozen. Bob Hope told six, but he would stare at the audience and wait. I just kept going. I work wild like a woman would.
Q: How did the laugh start?
A: At first, I did it because I was nervous. Then, I used it to prime the pump and break up the jokes with an oral exclamation mark. It caught on. I don’t laugh nearly as often as people think. It just seems that way.
Q: Why the cigarette holder?
A: So I could keep my left hand in the air. It became such an important part of my act that people thought it was a foot long. It was five inches long. Oh, and it was never lit. I flicked it, but no ashes. (She cackled.)
Q: Have you had bad audiences?
A: There is no such thing as a bad audience. You must never surrender on the stage. The audience comes to see you, so you must take charge. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be up there.
Q: Are some people born funny?
A: Steve Allen once said that if you’re not funny by the age of 12, you’re not going to be funny. I agree with him.
Finally, here a few of Phyllis’s favorite one-liners:
I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford; then I want to move in with them.
Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room.
I wore a topless suit to the beach. It took me two hours to get arrested.
Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.