Archive for Saturday, May 4, 2002

No joke: Phyllis Diller retiring

Daffy diva of comedy says goodbye to standup after 47 years

May 4, 2002

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— Phyllis Diller is hanging up her wigs and ending her road career as a purveyor of raucous one-liners that skewered fads, fancies, imaginary husband Fang and her own cosmetic surgery.

For 47 years, the housewife-turned-comedian and trailblazer for female stand-up comedians has delighted audiences with her frizzy hair, outrageous costumes and an explosive laugh that could make strong dogs howl.

She's toured for years, but a troublesome engagement in Palm Beach, Fla., two months ago convinced her it was time to quit.

"I came out and started my act and the mike didn't work," Diller recalled in a recent interview. "It kept going in and out. It upset me so much that it affected what I did ... I thought, I don't need this kind of aggravation."

Diller had been contemplating retirement from the road, anyway, because of her health. (Three years ago she was equipped with a pacemaker.) She also wants to write her long-postponed autobiography.

After the Palm Beach fiasco, she canceled whatever dates she could, fulfilled others and decided to do her last live stand-up at the Suncoast casino in Las Vegas this weekend.

Diller will mark her 85th birthday July 17, but she could pass for 30 years younger, thanks to the formidable skills of yes, it's true her plastic surgeon.

She lives alone in a spacious house in the exclusive Brentwood section of West Los Angeles. The hallway walls are jammed with her paintings and drawings, and her painting studio contains racks of wigs in all colors and styles.

She intends to devote most of her newfound leisure to her art and writing, but she won't be vanishing completely at least not on television. She'll appear on "The Drew Carey Show" Wednesday as Mimi's grandmother, and she'd like to do more TV guest shots.

Kathy Kinney, who plays Mimi, is one of many female comics to have been inspired by the daffy Diller delivery.

"Who can forget the hair, the laugh, Fang?" she said. "I used to watch her whenever she was on television. ... and she was one of the only women out there. I was fascinated by her timing, her laugh, her look; at a time when most women tried to be beautiful, she just said, 'I'm just gonna look this way and be funny."'

Diller said she didn't grow up funny "but somehow I always got the comedy parts in school plays."

She was a housewife in a San Francisco suburb with five children and a husband who couldn't hold a job, when her spouse, Sherwood Diller, persuaded her to cash in on the funny skits she did for PTA events. "He pushed me off the diving board," she said.

She honed her act in small-time joints, then on March 7, 1955, at 37, she made a smash debut at the trend-setting Purple Onion club.

Female stand-ups were rare in the 1950s even in bohemian San Francisco and Diller's rowdy, machine-gun delivery wowed the avant-garde. Job offers began coming in from across the country. She and her husband left the kids with his mother and sister in a small St. Louis apartment and hit the road.

An appearance on the Jack Paar TV show elevated her to the big time.

Her career also got a big boost from Bob Hope, who first saw Diller in a Washington, D.C., club that she discovered was a haven for hookers more interested in business than comedy.

She bombed, and she feared facing Hope. "You were great," he told her, and he continued to be her cheerleader. She appeared in three of his movies and 23 of his TV specials.

"I had promised the children that they would someday have bedrooms of their own," she said. "So we built a big colonial house in a suburb of St. Louis, with a swimming pool we kept hot enough to boil a potato in year-round."

After 25 years of marriage, she divorced Sherwood Diller and a month later married actor Warde Donovan. Her second marriage lasted nine weeks, which of course she used in her act: "I was so busy getting a divorce I didn't have time to open my wedding gifts." Later, she had "the love of my life" in her 10-year affair with lawyer Robert Hastings; he died at 86 in 1991.

She swears she will not follow the example of other celebrities, such as Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jordan, whose announced retirements were later rescinded.

"I consider comebacks cheap. And bad taste," she declared. "It's like those stores that advertise 'Going Out of Business Sale!' and 'Lost Our Lease! Must Sell Everything!' Two weeks later they open another store. Not this kid, baby."

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