LOS ANGELES — Phyllis Diller, the housewife turned humorist who aimed some of her sharpest barbs at herself, punctuating her jokes with her trademark cackle, died Monday morning in her Los Angeles home at age 95.
“She died peacefully in her sleep and with a smile on her face,” her longtime manager, Milton Suchin, told The Associated Press.
Diller, who suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1999, was found by her son, Perry Diller. The cause of her death has not been released.
She was a staple of nightclubs and television from the 1950s — when female comics were rare indeed — until her retirement in 2002. Diller built her stand-up act around the persona of the corner-cutting housewife (“I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard”) with bizarre looks, a wardrobe to match (by “Omar of Omaha”) and a husband named “Fang.”
Wrote Time magazine in 1961: “Onstage comes something that, by its own description, looks like a sackful of doorknobs. With hair dyed by Alcoa, pipe-cleaner limbs and knees just missing one another when the feet are wide apart, this is not Princess Volupine. It is Phyllis Diller, the poor man’s Auntie Mame, only successful female among the New Wave comedians and one of the few women funny and tough enough to belt out a ’standup’ act of one-line gags.”
She inspired a generation of female comics, including Joan Rivers, Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg, who remembered Diller on Twitter Monday.
Diller described herself as “one of those life-of-the-party types,” in an interview with AP in 1965. “You’ll find them in every bridge club, at every country club. People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs. They still do.”
She didn’t get into comedy until she was nearly 40, after her first husband, Sherwood Diller, prodded her for two years to give up a successful career as an advertising and radio writer. Through it all, she was also a busy mother.
“We had five kids at the time. I don’t how he thought we’d handle that,” she told the AP in 2006.
A Chicago Tribune columnist, describing her appearance at a nightspot there in 1958, noted she was from San Francisco, hailed her as “the weirdest, wildest yet” — and made sure to mention her five youngsters.
Her husband managed her career until the couple’s 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. Shortly after her divorce she married entertainer Warde Donovan, but they separated within months.
Through both marriages and other relationships, the foibles of “Fang” remained an integral part of her act.
“Fang is permanent in the act, of course,” she once said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary.”
She also appeared in movies, including “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number” and “Eight on the Lam” with Bob Hope.
In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” Gypsy Rose Lee played a nosy neighbour. In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”
But standup comedy was her first love, and when she broke into the business in 1956 it was a field she had largely to herself because female comics weren’t widely accepted then.
Bob Newhart said Diller was one of a kind.
“The thing that strikes me most about Phyllis, aside from a joy to be around, was her uniqueness,” he said Monday. “There was no one like Phyllis before, and I doubt if there will be anyone after.”
Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, she married Sherwood Diller right out of school (Bluffton College) and was a housewife for several years before getting outside work.
She was working as an advertising writer for a radio station when a comedy turn at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub launched her toward stardom.
Diller is survived by her two children, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Plans for services are pending.