“A woman hits 40 going 90 miles an hour. It’s very embarrassing—you and your mother approaching the same age from opposite directions.”
“Honey, I went from baby fat to middle-age spread so fast I didn’t have a good five minutes. If I had, I would have given a party.”
If you were anywhere near a television in the 1960s and ‘70s, you would have recognized the material, as well as the voice and that long, snaking laugh. Phyllis Diller was unique—to say the least. For over 55 years, she parodied herself so relentlessly, it’s hard to realize there was a real person inside. But, as she told Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Haley for a 1962 Post article, she was a woman who’d reached success by a long, hard, and not very funny road.
With her husband Sherwood working as an inspector at a Naval Air Station during World War II, Phyllis embarked upon a decade of “working as hard as I think it is possible for a woman to work.”
”I scrubbed, washed, ironed, mended, cooked, and had babies. There was never enough money. … It was a nightmare. Sherwood took a second job as a night watchman and a third job driving a taxi on weekends.”
Soon, though, exhaustion caught up with Sherwood. He was found asleep on his night watchman’s job and lost it. The mortgage company dunned them for late payments, the grocer finally refused credit, and the utilities companies threatened. “I just hurt worrying about getting enough food and clothes for our five kids,” says Phyllis. “But there was something worse. Sherry and I fought constantly. We were giving the kids a negative start in life. I even thought of divorce.”
Incongruously, during this bleak time Phyllis created the style of comedy that makes her so successful today. “To hide our awful mess from the neighborhood, I acted as if I didn’t have a care. I think I began being funny almost unconsciously.”
In the corner Laundromat, Phyllis began cracking jokes and satirizing the housewife’s life for the women waiting for their clothes to wash. They found Phyllis so hilarious that, encouraged, she would burst into the Laundromat with roses taped to her ears, yards of frothy tulle around her neck and battered cooking utensils as props for spontaneous takeoffs on her sad lot.
The tension inside Phyllis exploded early one Sunday evening. Neither she nor Sherwood can remember what trivial incident made her scream at him, slam out of the house and walk, she thinks, for miles. Passing a strange church, she turned back.
“Something forced me,” she says. As she slid down in the last pew she heard the minister reading: “Whatsoever things are true … whatsoever things are pure … think on these things.” “The words seemed to be addressed directly to me, as if God Himself were giving me a message,” Phyllis says.
To the dismay of her Laundromat audiences, she did not entertain for the next several weeks. “I stayed home,” she says, “having skull-and-soul sessions with myself and reading self-help books. Before, I had always scoffed at claims that anyone could change his life for the better by positive thinking. But considering the shape we were in, I was willing to try anything. … I didn’t change my life overnight, but at least I glimpsed what I had to do. I had to stop wallowing in negative thoughts about what a hard time we were having. I knew I had to think and work in positive ways with the good things I had—my healthy, obedient children and my hardworking husband. As a start, since we so desperately needed money, I had to go out and get a job.”
She began working at a radio station and, for a time, had a 15-minute, daytime television show titled, Phyllis Diller, the Homely Friendmaker. She worked with a drama coach to develop skits and worked on her delivery, locked in her room with a full-length mirror and a tape recorder.
She started auditioning at comedy clubs, and was allowed to fill in for a comic who had recently quit. After the first night, she realized how much she still needed to learn. She worked continually on her gags, trying out new gestures and faces. She became more popular, eventually headlining at San Francisco’s Purple Onion and Hungry i comedy clubs. Within a few years after this interview, she was starring in movies with Bob Hope, and had her own primetime TV show.
The fame didn’t change her. She never forgot what it took to be successful. Besides, she told audiences, she didn’t have the looks that would let her grow conceited.
“You know what keeps me humble?” she’d say. “Mirrors!”