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Classic Hollywood: Remembering Phyllis Diller (and 52,569 of her jokes) at the Smithsonian

Phyllis Diller modeling a Raymond Hudd-designed hat in 1966.
(Associated Press)

Phyllis Diller is at the Smithsonian. No, that is not a joke.

Earlier this year, in conjunction with Women’s History Month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History solicited volunteers to help transcribe the late stand-up comedian’s voluminous joke file, which had been donated to the august institution.

Three weeks and 52,569 jokes later, the job was completed.

Hanna BredenbeckCorp, project assistant for the museum, was impressed. “It took me four months to scan all the joke cards,” she said with a laugh. “It was heartwarming to see that everyone had such a personal connection to her. People were sharing memories on Twitter. It was really neat to see how popular she is still.”

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Diller, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 95, helped shatter stand-up comedy’s glass ceiling. In 1955 at the age of 37, the Alameda, Calif., mother of five made her nightclub debut at San Francisco’s famed Purple Onion. In 1958, she made her television debut opposite Groucho Marx on the game show, “You Bet Your Life.”

But her legacy, beyond her jokes, according to comic Roseanne, was that Diller broke the mold and paved the way for the next generation of female stand-up comics.

She took a jackhammer to the stereotypes that women were told to emulate.

Roseanne

“Phyllis Diller’s jokes belong in the Smithsonian as sure as artifacts from Thomas Edison’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s labs,” she shared in an email. “She was that much of an innovator in her field, and, in fact, she damn near invented her field! She took a jackhammer to the stereotypes that women were told to emulate. Phyllis, onstage, was a flaming horror in the kitchen, a nightmare of a wife, a fashion flop who thought every day was Halloween and, best of all, she looked herself and the real world in the eye, laughed her head off and got us to join in. She said, ‘You can be free from all that.’”

She parlayed self-deprecating jokes about her looks (“I entered a beauty contest … not only did I come in last, I got 361 get-well cards”), lack of homemaking skills (“I’m 18 years behind in my ironing”) and her husband “Fang” (“I’ve been asked to say a couple of words about my husband; how about short and cheap?”) into headliner status in the country’s top comedy rooms.

She was not a leading lady in films or a successful TV star (her series, “The Pruitts of Southampton,” only lasted one season, and a later variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” was cancelled after only three months), but she was in the stand-up pantheon in nightclubs and concert halls and enjoyed most favored guest status on others’ variety and talk shows.

Heidi Rotbart and Phyllis Diller in 2010.
(Courtesy of Heidi Rotbart)

Diller succeeded in a business dominated by men, and the men initially were not amused. Heidi Rotbart, owner of Heidi Rotbart Management who in the 1980s became Diller’s traveling secretary, says she once asked a male comedian, himself an icon, what the guys back then thought of Diller’s meteoric success. “We hated her,” he now-affectionately replied. When Diller heard that story, Rotbart related, she laughed her signature braying cackle.

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The jokes in Diller’s joke file — all set-ups and punchlines — span every conceivable category, said Rotbart, who was charged with typing up on 3-x-5 index cards the gags Diller either wrote, bought or was sent by fans. BredenbeckCorp digitized this comedy cache for the purpose of creating a searchable database.

The volunteers, a veritable Joke Brigade, were responsible for noting the joke’s category, source, the date it was written, and then typing out the joke itself. Like this one about the Los Angeles Dodgers: “The only people who don’t have to worry about viruses are the Los Angeles Dodgers. They haven’t caught anything in years.” And this one: “As is the case with the light bulb, the guy who is always turned on is the first to burn out.”

These were two of the jokes Susan Wever from Indianapolis transcribed. She admitted she was initially not a big fan, (“I was a quiet child and maybe her abrasiveness scared me a bit,” she explained), but she was compelled to answer the Smithsonian’s online call for volunteers. As a retired librarian, she said, the project appealed to her. “I really admired that she had everything so organized on catalog cards,” she said.

The joke file, she offered, is an object lesson in how humor evolves. “What was funny in the 1960s may not be so funny now and may even be offensive to some,” she said. “It was also interesting to see she evolved. In the 1960s, her humor is (primarily) making fun of herself, her poor housewife skills, her flat chest, stuff like that. Later, she’s was doing jokes about racism, like, ‘The word bigot is a contraction for big idiot.’”

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Wever now considers herself an admirer. “I read up on her. She did a lot of USO trips to Vietnam. She was a great person, very talented.”

Comedian Phyllis Diller performs during the Bob Hope show for American troops in South Vietnam, on Jan. 6, 1967.
(Associated Press)

Rotbart enthusiastically seconds this. “She lived her life being positive,” she said. “She would not accept negativity. And she was such a good person. She wrote thank-you notes to everyone. She was shy, but she was always on. She had a tireless work ethic; she was constantly writing and rewriting material.”

Noted Roseanne: “All the words apply when we’re talking about Phyllis Diller, and they’re not clichés: she lived her life as an artist. She remembered to have fun and to play while mocking the most serious assumptions.

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“I admire her ability for organization too. My jokes are still mostly in my head. She got hers on paper in alphabetical order. She was a musician, a painter, a philosopher, and she sponsored three generations of comedians’ social commentary.”

Unlike her stage persona, Diller was an excellent cook, an artist and a concert pianist who performed with symphony orchestras. The crazy-costumed comic was actually an elegant fashionista who wanted to make herself look beautiful. “She took plastic surgery out of the closet,” Rotbart added.

But her true legacy, she said, was that she paved the way for other female comedians such as Joan Rivers and Roseanne and extended help and advice to younger stand-up comics.

Phyllis Diller in December 2006.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

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A Diller biopic has long been in development, Rotbart said. As for the joke file, the work by the volunteers is currently under review by the Smithsonian. At some point, BredenbeckCorp said, it will be put on public display. Until then, the jokes can be accessed by visiting the Smithsonian’s searchable website at collections.si.edu.

“You can trace what Americans were talking about, worrying about and joking about,” she said. “There are jokes about all kinds of celebrities, about the Vietnam War and student protests, and jokes about presidents up through Bill Clinton. The joke file is a snapshot of American history.”

calendar@latimes.com


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