Phyllis Diller’s Life in Comedy
On July 17, 2012, Phyllis Diller celebrates her 95th birthday. She is a comedic institution and-as one of the very first female standup comics-a true pioneer in her field. Her one-and-only memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy, may surprise fans-it’s not just a collection of one-liners; it’s a surprisingly frank and thoughtful tour of her personal and professional life.
In 1955, at the age of 37 (and already the mother of five), she made her stand-up debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion club. Her late-blooming career was launched with several appearances on The Jack Parr Show.
“There had been women standup comics before me,” Diller writes. “brassy chicks like Belle Barth and Rusty Warren, who turned the air blue with their crude jokes in after-hours hangouts, as well as the far more sophisticated and attractive Jean Carroll, who specialized in witty one-liners about her husband and her home life. Carroll actually made several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, yet neither she nor any of the other women broke through on the scale that I did during the late fifties and early sixties-Jean didn’t travel to build a mass audience, and Barth and Warren were far too X-rated for television. So, for the first ten years, I had it all to myself.”
Part of her drive toward a successful career was because it was a means of escape from an abusive marriage. Much like Steve Martin’s memoir of his early years, Born Standing Up, Diller offers readers an unglamorous inside look at the business side of performing comedy and also a peek behind the curtain to see how comics who sustain a long career don’t just write jokes, they create a comedic persona.
Always open about having cosmetic surgery, Diller also discusses her 15 different procedures (“When I die, God won’t know me,” she jokes. “There are no two parts of my body the same age. If I have on more facelift, it’ll be a cesarean.”) and her decision to stop going under the knife (“When you reach my age, there’s not a whole lot to gain from looking ten years younger.”).
Although, Phyllis Diller has retired from standup (her final performance in Las Vegas in 2002 is captured in the recently-released-on-DVD documentary “Goodnight, We Love You: The Life and Legend of Phyllis Diller”), her TV and film credits continue into 2009. Near the end of her honest, affectionate and clear-eyed memoir, Diller sums up her current life: “It’s the harvest. I plowed the field and planted the seeds, and now I’m watching the flowers grow. It’s a time of life that should really be nice, and mine really is.”