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Breaking Barriers

June 12, 2019

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I recently came across an article in Smithsonian magazine’s March 2019 issue that discussed the relationship of the author, Margaret Chu, with Phyllis Diller, the stand-up comic who died on August 12, 2012 at the ripe old age of 95 and had outlived two of her children.

Phyllis Diller in the 1950s before she became a stand-up comic. She was also an actress, author, recording artist, gourmet cook, and concert pianist.

Chu, a comic and actress herself, writes about Diller’s career and how it influenced her personally. This makes for fascinating reading but I was more interested in how Diller herself started a stand-up comic career – in a field dominated by men. Not only that, she had a husband and five young children at home! What odds!

BORN IN LIMA, OHIO ON JULY 17, 1917

I turned to the Web and found a wealth of material about Diller, who married at the age of 22 and, along with having babies, started working as a copywriter (as one of these wordsmiths for many years I can relate: you learn how to write very quickly with precision. It’s a skill that lasts a lifetime).

MEN DOMINATED THE STAND-UP SCENE

Diller realized that there were no female comics around – only guys like Milton Berle, Morey Amsterdam and Art Carney who told jokes about their wives. This started her thinking: she created the housewife “who beat the rap” and had a husband called “Fang” – the name itself is pure genius.

SHE CACKLED AND HAD EXPLODING HAIR

The persona she created at the age of 37 was “the housewife from hell” that morphed into “the Queen of the one-liners.” But more important she claimed that women didn’t have to be perfect wives by poking fun with jokes such as, “I once wore a peek-a-boo blouse. People would peek, then they would boo.”

And mothers didn’t have to be perfect either she claimed: “From time-to-time, most children threaten to run away from home. This is the only thing that keeps some parents going.”

SHE WAS ALWAYS TESTING, TRYING THINGS OUT

“I needed a husband in my one-liners who had to be even more idiotic than I was and by chance I mentioned Fang at the Purple Onion one night. It got a big laugh so I knew I was on to something. This resulted in jokes such as: “His father told him to ride bareback. He took off his pants” AND “He thinks a Royal Flush is the john at Buckingham Palace” AND “One of the kids asked him to spell Mississippi. He replied, ‘The River or the state?’”

DILLER ALWAYS WROTE HER OWN MATERIAL

Of course when she became a celebrity and had money that changed, but she still wrote 60% of it, and noted that, “as a stand-up comic you work in front of a curtain alone. No props, no music. It’s important to write your own material. A comic actress such as Carol Burnett has her lines written by others. For a sketch, movie or play it’s an ensemble. Being alone and just talking is what a stand-up comic is.”

After Diller donated this file of 52,569 jokes, the Smithsonian asked for volunteers to type them for digital access. The project was done in three weeks. (I’ll bet those folks were laughing the entire time.) Photo: Courtesy of the Smithsonian

HER ROUTINES WERE RAPID FIRE

She strived for 12 laughs a minute and said, “That’s about as fast as anyone can talk. There’s a model that you have about how jokes should build and when the capper should come on. You have one setup and then all the tag, tag, tag, tag. You don’t have to repeat the setup but there is a limit as to how many times the audience will take one character. Here’s an example of the setup, “He’s so fat that…. then you have all these tags: like bada-dum, de-do-do and so on. It’s like music.”

It sounds like it requires a lot of thought, skill, creativity and discipline to me.

All the laughing she did at herself and for others went on until she retired in 2002 at the age of 85.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick


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