Remembering Phyllis Diller

By Yael Kohen

Before I was led into the receiving room of Phyllis Diller’s 10,000-square-foot, gated Brentwood home, I was told the legendary comedy queen, who died Monday at the age of 95, preferred to be called Madame Diller. There would be no hugging or kissing—just a shaking of the hands. I would have 30 minutes and then I would sit on a velvety green settee that was positioned on Madame Diller’s right. The formality threw me. I didn’t expect Madame Diller, the mad-cap comedian with the tacky frocks and fright wig—famous for the kind of self-deprecating barbs that make you cringe—to take herself so seriously. We’ve all heard about comedy’s boys clubs and the only explanation that popped into my head was that maybe after a half-century of working on a male-dominated comedy circuit, Diller had a chip on her shoulder and wanted to make sure she was getting some respect.

But Diller, who was 92 at the time of the interview, was not at all like that. And she didn’t talk about boys clubs. That wasn’t a barrier she seemed to relate to even though when she launched her career back in the late-1950s, she was one of the few women who dared to perform standup. “Whether you’re man, woman, or mouse,” she said in an interview for my book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. “It’s either you are funny or you aren’t. Either you connect or you don’t.” How about hecklers? “I never had hecklers. Here’s my rhythm: Either I am talking or they are laughing. You would’ve had to make an appointment to heckle me. Silence attracts hecklers. They have to have silence. They never had a chance.” Did she get paid as much as her male peers? “Probably more.” At the height of her career, Diller said she was pulling in a million a year.

In the two hours we chatted, we covered a lot of ground. Diller (who was a concert pianist) told me, “I have a theory that all comics are musicians,” because “rhythm, music, it is really timing—if you don’t have that you can’t be a comic.” She described Joan Rivers as a “bosom buddy” and told me that her second husband, Ward Donovan, opened for Rivers as a singer at the old cabaret club, the Upstairs at the Downstairs, in New York. When Diller started her career, she shared a manager with Maya Angelou, who was a dancer in the Fifties, saying “He’s the one that gave Maya that queenly, regal entrance.” She said that Barbra Streisand, who once opened for Diller at the Bon Soir, was someone she admired because she “never lost control for three seconds of her entire life” and Carol Burnett because of the way “she handled her stardom.” On more contemporary comedians like Roseanne and Rosie O’Donnell—Diller liked to meet and stay friendly with current comics—she said: “All these girls, we are simpatico. They give me credit for being their mommy. I made it look possible. I made it look real. That this is an option.”

Then, we got into the time she dressed up like a man to break into the Friars Club, which was roasting comedy legend Sid Caesar, a male-only event. “That was not my idea. For six years I had a New York beau—Howard Rose—and whenever I went to New York he took me around, and when he came out here I gave parties for him and made sure he met all my friends. We had a romping six year romance. He was never in love with me but he liked my friends and my way of life and my entertainment and we took cruises together. He was a member [of the Friars Club] although he was not in showbiz. He was just a rich guy. He got the idea that I should go to the roast dressed as a man; he just got an obsession about it. He bought a table of 10 and I started preparing my disguise—phony eyebrows, a mustache. I went to the boy’s department and bought a suit. They must have thought I was nuts—’woman’s crazy in booth two.’ I dressed all up like a man. Everyone at the table knew. I could never have gotten by without anybody knowing. Now remember I’m dressed as a man, so now I can’t go to any toilet. I can’t go to the men’s toilet because I’m a lady and I can’t go to the women’s toilet because I’m dressed like a man. Anyway, somebody took a picture of me by the men’s room and it was in the newspaper. Howard and I left the next day for Paris, but it kicked up a big storm. Which was fun.”

As we spoke, her answers to my questions were increasingly followed by the guffaw she was famous for. It became so overpowering that I worried she would keel over right there. But Diller, I suppose, was not as frail as she looked.

Before I left her home, I got the tour. The house, which Diller purchased in 1965, was built in 1911. A parlor downstairs had been featured in the Cameron Diaz-Kate Winslet movie, The Holiday. And another room was called The Bob Hope Salon, where there was a giant painting of her idol and mentor, Bob Hope (and in front of which she actually kneeled—Diller appeared in three of his movies and 29 of his specials). In the upstairs rooms she showed me her paintings and explained how starting at around midnight, she would sip a martini, put on some jazz and paint. She took me to another room where she explained that she was selling her old costumes—one was going for $700 and according to Diller, another had been purchased by her friend, the screen star Debbie Reynolds (mother to another funny woman, Carrie Fisher).

And then I left. For years after, I would speak to Diller on and off—she loved to talk comedy and was always happy to reminisce about her days coming up in comedy. I was lucky to find a sounding board and a portal into a bygone era.

Madame Diller, you will be missed.
Yael Kohen’s book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) will be out in October. Follow her on Twitter at @YaelKohen.
“An Ode to Phyllis Diller, the First Female Comic to Joke Like a Man,”
by Yael Kohen
(New York Magazine)

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