Pioneering comedian Phyllis Diller dies at age 95

Diller was found in her bed at her home in Los Angeles by her son.

Reuters August 21, 2012

LOS ANGELES: Comedian Phyllis Diller, the former housewife whose raucous cackle and jokes about her own looks made her one of America's first female stand-up comedy stars, died in her sleep on Monday at age 95, her long-time manager said.

Diller was found in her bed at her home in the affluent Brentwood section of Los Angeles by her son, Perry, who had come to visit her, manager Milt Suchin said.

"She had a smile on her face, as you'd expect," Suchin told Reuters.

Her publicist, Fred Wostbrock, called her "a true pioneer" and "the first lady of stand-up comedy."

A friend and fellow comic, Joan Rivers, said on Monday that Diller cleared a path for a younger generation of female stand-up artists to trade on their jokes alone.

"Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny," Rivers said in a message posted through Twitter.

Diller created an indelible persona with her distinctive braying laugh, a cigarette holder, teased hair, outlandish costumes and a fictional lout of a husband she called Fang.

Her act consisted of rapid-fire jokes and one-liners that often spoofed social pretenses by poking fun at herself ("I went bathing nude on the beach the other day; it took me 20 minutes to get arrested") as well as a world of invented characters.

In addition to husband Fang - "What would you call a man with one tooth that was 2 inches long?" - there was her mother-in-law Moby Dick, her skinny sister-in-law Captain Bligh and her neighbor Mrs. Clean.

Diller prided herself on keeping her jokes tightly written and boasted that she held a world record for getting 12 laughs a minute.

A late-bloomer by show business standards, Diller got her start at age 37, making her debut at San Francisco's Purple Onion in 1955 as she broke into the male-dominated comedy circuit. Her first national exposure came as a contestant on Groucho Marx's TV quiz show "You Bet Your Life."

At that time Diller was a housewife who had raised five children, as well as a newspaper columnist, publicist and radio writer.

She discovered a flair for stand-up jokes at school parent-teacher meetings and similar gatherings and decided to make comedy a career at the urging of her then-husband, Sherwood Diller. The couple divorced in 1965 and a second marriage to singer Warde Donovan ended 10 years later.

Diller gradually adopted the props, zany wardrobe and stage persona that would become her trademark.