Phyllis Diller: The Original Queen of Stand-Up
Having decided to continue researching the pioneering women who found ways to succeed in traditionally male fields, I began watching out for inspiration. As I was flipping through my vinyl LP records for some new music to play while I work, I came across a copy of Phyllis Diller’s comedy album, Laughs, from my mom’s collection. I put the album on and for a few minutes I was my 10-year-old self, sitting on my bedroom floor listening to my parents’ records.
If you grew up in the 1970’s, as I did, the name “Phyllis Diller” conjures a very clear picture in your imagination. Raucous blonde cotton candy hairdo. Feather-bedecked psychedelic sack dress. 2-button shorty gloves in the perfect contrasting hue. Her trademark laugh (Ha! Ha! HAAA!) was ubiquitous in my favorite after-school TV shows: The Hollywood Squares, The Gong Show, Match Game.
Phyllis Diller made her comedy club debut at age 37 at the San Francisco club, The Purple Onion, in 1955, a time in which the stand-up comedy field was dominated by men. Household names like Jack Benny and Bob Hope had burnished the idea of the “funny man in a suit in front of a curtain” onto the American consciousness. Phyllis’s booking at the Purple onion was extended from its original 2-week run to 89 consecutive weeks. Though successful as her club performances were, it was her 1958 appearance on Groucho Marx's television game show, You Bet Your Life, that brought her brand of wacky and self-deprecating comedy to a national audience.
Phyllis Diller’s amazing life of work and charismatic presence on stage, television, and film, paved the way for generations of funny women to pursue their dreams of success. She was an inspiration for many who now are marquee names, such as Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, and Margaret Cho. The world of comedy is a much more open and welcoming one thanks in large part to the groundbreaking work of the quick-witted, charming, and fabulous Phillis Diller.