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Phyllis Diller keeps brightening corners

Special to The Times

In the late 1950s, Phyllis Diller was not only a successful female comedian, she was pretty much the only one. Drag queen impersonators notwithstanding, there’s still no one like her.

Excerpts from Diller’s routines run throughout her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” written with Richard Buskin, and do not disappoint: “I called my husband Fang and said, ‘I’ve had a little accident at the corner of Post and Geary.’ He said, ‘Post and Geary don’t cross.’ I said, ‘They do now.’ ” And Diller didn’t just poke fun at herself: “The other night Fang was reading the obituaries and he said, ‘Isn’t it amazing how people die in alphabetical order?’ ” Women in comedy routines then were the punch lines and yet here she was making jokes about her husband. In the pre-feminist era, this packed a gentle punch. But Diller’s one-liners were tempered by her unique appearance that combined garish outfits, a grand cigarette holder, cotton candy hair and a raucous cackle.

In a breezy, conversational manner, Diller relates growing up as an only child in modest circumstances in Lima, Ohio. Perry and Frances Driver were an older couple and fairly clueless about parenting. Years before she hit the comedy circuit, Diller appeared before audiences as a classical pianist and attended Chicago’s Sherwood Conservatory of Music. There Diller met her future first husband, Sherwood Diller. He was from a family with money but would squander his inheritance and always felt that working was somehow beneath him.

Several years and children later, Phyllis Diller was writing comedy bits for a San Francisco radio station. Sherwood, beset with various personal demons, was never going to be the breadwinner. But how could Phyllis launch a comedy career and still be a full-time mom? Something had to give, and she spent less time with her kids as she tried to make a better life for them.

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She started in San Francisco’s North Beach section. In the mid-1950s, it was the West Coast version of Greenwich Village. Diller lovingly recalls the days when local talents included Mort Sahl at the hungry i, Johnny Mathis at Ann’s 440 Club and an assortment of poets being poetic and strippers stripping. In a basement space was the Purple Onion, where Diller made a name for herself. Eventually she landed an appearance on Jack Paar’s talk show that changed her life forever.

Before that fateful Paar appearance in 1958, Diller’s lifeline at the Purple Onion was threatened when some jealous male comics conspired to get her fired. Diller responded with wisdom she’d gleaned from a popular self-help book. Instead of going ballistic, she thanked the club owner for hiring her and giving her a start. Flabbergasted by her measured and accepting response, the owner “un-fired” Diller a week later.

Not all the problems Diller faced could be battled so easily: her first husband’s mental illness, a disastrous second marriage to a bisexual alcoholic and the deaths of two of her five adult children.

Diller comes from a generation in which people who had problems dealt with them as best they could without much self-examination and “sharing.” When Diller’s daughter Sally was diagnosed with schizophrenia, support groups and medical help were not as available as they are today. Sally was eventually institutionalized but only after Diller tried bravely for many years to keep her daughter at home.

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In later years, Diller has played piano with symphony orchestras, performed live comedy shows around the country, painted and pioneered discussion of plastic surgery. She appeared on Bob Hope specials, Dean Martin roasts and myriad talk shows. Her movie career has gone from “Splendor in the Grass” to “A Bug’s Life.” It’s a long way from Lima, Ohio, but part of what helped the unpretentious Diller survive the journey was remembering where she started -- and the words from a Sunday school hymn: “Brighten the corner where you are!”

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Tony Peyser is a daily contributor to the political website BuzzFlash.com.


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