IN CELEBRATION – Thankful For the Life of Phyllis Diller


A piece of my childhood just died and I and everyone else are going to miss her.

Phyllis Diller came out of the Mad Men era and her humor has to be appreciated in that context. She subverted the whole sleek, sophisticated model of womanhood that Demi Moore captures so well in Flawless, and she did it in a way that was revolutionary in American comedy at the time, by mocking herself.

She was funnier than any other comedian of the time. She was not just funny for a woman, she was funnier than anyone else.

Amanda Marcotte has written some articles taking issue with Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that women just weren’t very funny, and it would have been an insulting allegation, if that is in fact what he had been saying (thanks, guys), but for me it’s so uniformed and baseless as to need no refutation, even if Marcotte seems to be as unaware of that as Hitchens. Phyllis Diller was refuting it before Hitchens could spell comedy.

Her basic schtick was Revenge of the Housewives. Her comedy made fun of physical beauty – she once quipped that she had bought a Living bra but that it had starved to death. The other day I saw a reference to another one of her lines, that she had spent seven hours in the beauty salon, and that was just for the estimate. To my mind that was a much stronger attack on the fashion industry and the beauty-industrial complex than any number of man-blaming articles bemoaning the sexual objectification of women and the insecurity that that induces, that the industry feeds on. But it required an ability to laugh at one’s one complicity, and apparently that’s a bridge too far for most commentators.

She was not alone in her Revenge of the Housewives, there was a fun literature of comedic books back in the early 60s – Peg Bracken came out with the Complete I Hate to Cook Cookbook and there were others – but a literary niche market is one thing while competing on stage in a very full field is something else.

The tributes to her have mentioned how crucial she was in opening the way for female comedians and that’s very true, but it ghettoizes her to leave it at that. She opened the way for an entirely new kind of comedy, in which the comedian is mocking her or himslef, instread of mocking someone else and letting the audience participate in the cheap superiority that offers. She opened the way for male comedians like Steve Martin. She can even be said to have made Sarah Silverman and Daniel Tosh possible.

She was a true cultural revolutionary in a time of cultural revolution, and I am thankful for her body of work. And I am going to miss her.

Jim Doyle
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<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="2919">23 comments</span>

  • Great stuff, Gingko!!… I had to explain this on Facebook, somebody was all “but she made fun of her looks! She denigrated herself”–blah blah blah.. and I had to tell her that she was also making fun of hairdressers, makeup, etc. The idea was that there was a gender role and she was “having issues” with it… and all those women listening felt safe in saying so too, since she seemed to be having such a good time confessing it. I loved her loud, unapologetic laughter!!! I think she was the flip side of Betty Friedan, poking fun at the housewifery, where Friedan was all sturm and drang and melodrama.

    Women of my mother’s age were what we would now call “empowered” by her, she would say out loud: “I told my kids ‘go play in traffic’–unfortunately, kids never do what you tellem these days!” and “cleaning your house while raising kids is like shoveling snow before it stops snowing”–and women loved hearing that. She once said her (long suffering and totally fictional) husband Fang did not like her cooking, and she would say, “Eat it, ITS LINT!” and women would scream laughter. I think its hard to convey her importance to the current generation. She was probably the first “unattractive” woman even allowed on TV (Mama Cass was the first truly fat woman allowed on TV)… paving the way for Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett and other women who were funny but not pretty. Women were not allowed to be regular-looking and funny (like male comedians), until those women paved the way. The fact that young women don’t really “get it”–is actually proof of her success.

    The other day I saw a reference to another one of her lines, that she had spent seven hours in the beauty salon, and that was just for the estimate.


    My mother and grandmother just ADORED loved her and never missed her TV appearances. (Her passing makes me miss them so much.) She probably did more for feminism than any number of boring theory books.

    Good work, Gingko! 🙂

  • Hitchens didnt say that women arent funny, thats a straw-man. He said that women dont have the same incentives as men to develop senses of humor and comedy acts. They can be funny, he freely acknowledged that. They just dont need to be funny. It is as if Hitchen’s critics never actually bothered to read his article.

    Phyllis was very talented, however, and it is nice to see your comments about her.

  • Agree with Aych. I don’t have a personal opinion on whether or not Hitchens is correct; he was a cultural critic and not a scientist and he often overstepped his bounds of expertise. But his point was valid within our cultural zeitgeist and I agree with it as such. In my dealings with women, I find that humor is a huge indicator of many things. I find that sexually passive women tend to be reactionary and nearly incapable of soliciting laughter, while active women who might actually bother to ask a guy out will also be able to make him laugh much more readily. It’s a skill that a person hones when they have a red to hone it. With that, I agree with Hitchens, And I think that if Phyllis Diller is every the sort of contrast to the Betty Friedmans of this world as Gingko and Daisy says she is, then by all means she is the kind of woman who should be celebrated by men.

  • I feel like there’s too much time in the way for me to really “get” her jokes, but she sounds like a pretty cool person (albeit with a lamentable name).

    The point that most women in our culture do not have much to develop comedy acts and the ability to tell jokes (which is not at all the same thing as a sense of humor, although some may have incentives to at least pretend not to have one of those) seems a valid one to me. Putting on a performance with the intention to entertain and inspire interest, even to an audience of one, is fundamentally an active role. It is, furthermore, often a form, a very active form, of courting behavior. That puts it about as much at odds with the romantic, traditionalist conception of female sexuality as you can get.

  • Dungone: Dude, it’s not a matter of agreeing with me. It’s a matter of reading the original article by Hitchens. There’s also his response to the criticism, which his critics seem to have ignored as well:

    He makes the (valid) point that no one has attempted to refute his actual contention, rather than respond to straw-man contentions.

    In short, Hitch has been given the same treatment as Larry Summers. Not that anyone notices.

    In both cases (some) women were angry NOT because he said something, but because (some) women _imagined_ he’d said something entirely different.

    And that looks sort of dumb and irrational to me. Am I the only person in the world who dared to read Hitchen’s original article?

    And here’s the thing about that headline: In magazines, headlines aren’t often written by the authors themselves. They’re written by headline authors, who need to squeeze words into a limited space, which is why so many headlines seem disconnected from the contents of the articles they promote.

  • @Aych, well I don’t go by “dude”. Agreeing with you means, “I’m not going to repeat what you just said about his critics.” And, by the way, I pretty much just responded to his original article when I said that I don’t know about whether I agreed with him per se and the sort of pop evo psych approach he took.

  • Dungone: Fine. What’s the best theory that his critics can put-forth, then?

    Wait, wait, let me take a wild guess: Women are prohibited, perhaps at gunpoint, from developing senses of humor. Because, patriarchy and teh mehnz. QED.

    Yeah, that’s compelling.

  • @aych, I have already stated a better criticism of what Hitchens had put forth. Please retread it, then.

  • I never found Diller very funny. Maybe it was just me but that is my .02.

    Interesting what Hitchins is saying with men “needing” to be funny more than women. Of the people I know I would say that funny men outnumber funny women by about 100 to 1. Go figure.

  • It was really my fault that I hadn’t linked to the article and to the youtube response in my initial post.

  • Hiding: It is, furthermore, often a form, a very active form, of courting behavior.

    Wow, very smart. You have explained something to me!

    I am considered FUNNY in real life, if not in print. 😛 But I have also been called a flirt, which always bothered me, since most times I was NOT flirting but just being funny. But this makes sense; they thought I was telling jokes to flirt, if it is courting behavior. Thing is, men have always appreciated my jokes more than women (although as I have gotten older, learned to tailor humor to women specifically), so that is why I would tell funny stuff to men, since I knew they would appreciate it and find it amusing.

    But yes, this would explain why their laughter was often an intro to being hit on…. I always found that SO confusing!

  • Aych: Women are prohibited, perhaps at gunpoint, from developing senses of humor. Because, patriarchy and teh mehnz. QED.


    Actually, my mother (who was side-splittingly funny, esp drunk) thought it was because women were indoctrinated to be good mothers, and GOOD middle-class mothers (note the modifiers) are supposed to be all “straighten up, stop putting green beans in your nose, THAT ISN’T FUNNY!” to the kids. She thought as women had fewer children and didn’t have to play cop all the time, they might develop more of a sense of humor.

    Lots of Diller’s humor was about her failure to make the kids behave, since she was obviously laughing with/at them instead of properly taking the green beans out of their noses and sending them to the corner for it.

    Peg Bracken, similarly, and also Erma Bombeck.

  • God, I forgot to mention Erma Bombeck!

    “I had to explain this on Facebook, somebody was all “but she made fun of her looks! She denigrated herself”–blah blah blah..”

    Le sigh…. because of course looking like a barbie doll is the real essence of a person and it’s denigrating oneself to make fun of that.

    Let me guess. The perosn making that remark considered herself a feminst, rihgt? And they wonder where the stereotype of the humorless feminist comes form. (Actually it ocmes form the stereotype of the humorless Mother Superior, sionce that is how so many feminists present themselves.)

    Aych, very insightful comment about humor as a courting behavior.

  • “I never found Diller very funny. Maybe it was just me but that is my .02. ”

    Your two cents is as good as mu two cents, hackberry. Maybe you only saw her in later years, when the war was largely won.

  • My kid did this impersonation of this Natalie Imbruglia video

    HILARIOUS… I simply died. YOU HAD TO SEE IT, wish I had a video of it. It was exact, yet mocking the whole seductive aspects, the little-girl-lost thing. She also did a similar take-off of Fiona Apple that was fabulously funny.

    I applauded and encouraged her, since I wanted her to see that behavior as silly too, and I was thrilled she did. I didn’t want her IMITATING that bullshit for real.

    Well, she went to school and did it and got in trouble. And yes, it was mostly other girls who liked the videos that were most offended. (I guess she would have been 13 at the time) I am still not sure why they couldn’t appreciate the spoofs, but the gunpoint joke of Aych’s might not be far off. She was punished for it! Boys are expected to be mocking and funny, but it is (or was) considered out of line for girls.

    Gilda Radner also used to get in trouble for doing impersonations at school and so did I.

    Anyway, the school calls me at home, and I am like, I KNOW, ISN’T SHE GREAT!?! and they are, um, this is uncalled for. Even in the bathroom during lunch, or outside after school, not disrupting anything.. and they admitted as much. It was the BEHAVIOR they were worried about, “very irreverent”–excuse me, MTV is not the pope, okay?

    So see, I was as bad a mommy as Phyllis Diller. 🙂

  • @Gingko – Yeah, I never got a steady dose of her but always preferred Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. Even those were dim lights when compared to the male comedians like Robin Williams, George Carlin or even Bill Cosby. I always found the men funnier. Just me.

  • Did you know that Diller (God rest her soul) was rejected by Playboy Magazine for being too sexy? She hid her hotness to enhance her comedic carreer.

    “There was, however, one problem: Diller, who had long obscured her figure with the trademark ill-fitting lamé dresses she often wore onstage, turned out to have a shapely, sexy physique–and a pretty face, too, under all her clownish makeup. To everyone’s bewilderment (except maybe Phyllis Diller’s), Phyllis Diller was a bombshell.”

  • Hackberry, a lot of Burnett’s humor was specifically tailored to women, her re-enactments of old movies were always “chick flicks” like “Mildred Pierce”–I think that may be why men often didn’t get the jokes. Women were raised on those movies.

    I wish a “Lifetime movie” comedienne would come along to do the same… Kathy Griffin is probably the closest equivalent we have now. (making fun of Stella McCartney, Paris Hilton, Paltrow, etc.)

  • Bibo, welcome!

    And yes, I heard that about her. She was the 50s housewife all the way and that was what she mocked.

    Carol Burnett was great, but that reminds me of Lily Tomlin, who was also oxygen mask funny

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By Jim Doyle

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