Ms. Diller, who became famous for telling jokes that mocked her odd looks, her aversion to housekeeping and a husband she called Fang, was far from the first woman to do stand-up comedy. But she was one of the most influential. There were precious few women before her, if any, who could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or overpower an audience with such an outrageous personality.
One chestnut: “I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they’d boo.”
Another: “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’ ”
Ms. Diller, a 37-year-old homemaker when she took up comedy, mined her domestic life for material, assuring audiences that she fed Fang and her kids garbage soup and buried her ironing in the backyard. She exuded an image that was part Wicked Witch of the West (a role she actually played in a St. Louis stage production of “The Wizard of Oz”) and part clown.
In her many television appearances she would typically sashay onstage wearing stiff, outsize, hideous metallic dresses (she did this, she said, so she could lie to her audiences about the state of her body, which was really trim and shapely); high-heeled shoes or boots studded with rhinestones; and a bejeweled collar better suited to a junkyard dog or a fur scarf that she claimed was made from an animal she had trapped under the sink.
Slinking along on skinny legs, her feet invariably pointed outward, penguin-style, she originally carried a long bejeweled cigarette holder that held a make-believe cigarette from which she continually flicked imaginary ashes. (Ms. Diller, who did not smoke, later discarded the cigarette holder.)
Her hair was the blond flyaway variety, sometimes looking as if it was exploding from her scalp; her eyes were large and ferocious, her nose thin and overlong (she ultimately tamed it through plastic surgery). And then there was that unforgettable, ear-shattering voice, which would frequently explode into a sinister cackle that seemed perfectly matched to her image as the ultimate domestic demon.
Among Ms. Diller’s few female predecessors was Jean Carroll, sometimes called “the female Milton Berle,” who made numerous appearances in nightclubs and on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, where she mined her marriage and family for laughs. There were others: Minnie Pearl was an outrageous Southern spinster, Moms Mabley an outspoken black philosopher.
But Ms. Diller’s hard-hitting approach to one-liners — inspired by Bob Hope, who became an early champion — was something new for a woman. Her success proved that female comedians could be as aggressive or unconventional as their male counterparts, and leave an audience just as devastated. She cleared the way for the likes of Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and numerous others.
Although Ms. Diller used writers to help create her act, she estimated that she wrote 75 percent of the jokes herself. Her approach to humor was methodical. “My material was geared towards everyone of all ages and from different backgrounds, and I wanted to hit them right in the middle,” she explained in her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy” (2005), written with Richard Buskin. “I didn’t want giggles — I could get those with my looks — I wanted boffs, and I wanted people to get the joke at the same moment and laugh together. That way I could leave everything to my timing.”
She liked jokes that piled on the laughs in rapid succession. A favorite of hers was this one: “I realized on our first wedding anniversary that our marriage was in trouble. Fang gave me luggage. It was packed. My mother damn near suffocated!”
Phyllis Ada Driver was born on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio, the daughter of Perry Driver, an insurance executive, and the former Frances Ada Romshe. As a child she became interested in classical music, writing and theater.
After briefly attending the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago, she entered Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, near Lima, with thoughts of becoming a music teacher. She met Sherwood Anderson Diller in her senior year in college, and they were married in 1939.
She never taught music. The Dillers moved to California, where he was an inspector at a Navy air station and later held various other jobs — none, by Ms. Diller’s account, for very long. They struggled financially, even with Ms. Diller working. She wrote a shopping column for a newspaper in San Leandro and advertising copy for a department store in Oakland, then moved on to writing and promotion jobs at radio stations in Oakland and San Francisco.
She started to move toward a career in show business without realizing it. She was poor and unhappy, and she would meet other poor and unhappy women at the Laundromat and regale them with accounts of her home life. She also tried to inject humor into the advertising and publicity copy she wrote. Word spread about Phyllis Diller, and soon she was being asked to give presentations at parties and P.T.A. meetings.
Her husband thought she should be paid to make people laugh. She lacked the confidence to do it until she read a self-help book, “The Magic of Believing” by Claude M. Bristol. Inspired by its message of empowerment, she began to write her own comedy routines, hired a drama coach to give her more stage presence, and took whatever paid or unpaid performing jobs she could get: at hospitals, women’s clubs, church halls.
She made her bona fide professional debut at the Purple Onion, a San Francisco nightclub, in 1955. At first her act contained as much singing as joke-telling, with Ms. Diller’s persona more mock sophisticate than housewife from hell — her signature numbers included “Ridiculous,” a parody of the Eartha Kitt number “Monotonous” — but she gradually developed the character and the look that would make her famous.
She was soon being booked at nightclubs all over the country, and she became nationally known after several dozen appearances on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” beginning in 1958.
She was believable as well as hilarious when she talked about her husband, Fang; her mother-in-law, Moby Dick; and her sister-in-law, Captain Bligh. She was so believable that shortly after she divorced Sherwood Diller in 1965, his mother and sister sued her for defamation of character in an effort to keep her from talking about them in her act. She insisted that she was talking about a fictional family, not them, and eventually settled out of court.
Ms. Diller was never really the grotesque-looking woman she made herself out to be; her body, in fact, was attractive enough that when she posed nude for a Playboy photo spread the pictures ended up not being published — the magazine was going for laughs, and decided that they looked too good to be funny.
And despite her self-deprecating humor, she was concerned about her looks, especially as she began to detect signs of aging in her television appearances in the early 1970s. She became one of the first celebrities not just to have plastic surgery but also to acknowledge and even publicize that fact. By the 1990s she had had more than a dozen operations, including two nose jobs, three face-lifts, a chemical peel, a breast reduction, cheek implants, an eyeliner tattoo and bonded teeth.
She never tried to conceal the work and even kept a plastic surgery résumé, which she would give to anyone who asked. And she continued to make jokes about her appearance. “The ugly jokes would remain a part of my act because my image was already so well established,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Audiences had bought into it because, facially at least, it had been the truth, and for them it would continue to be the truth.”
Although Ms. Diller was a frequent guest on other people’s variety shows, her own network television ventures — “The Pruitts of Southampton” (1966-67), a sitcom, and “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” (1968), a variety hour — were both short-lived. Late in life she had a recurring role on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” and did voice-over work on “Family Guy” and other cartoon shows.
Her movie career was not particularly distinguished. While she made a number of films, including three with Bob Hope — “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” (1966), “Eight on the Lam” (1967) and “The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell” (1968) — none were as funny as she was.
But her career was not limited to movies, television or stand-up comedy. Between 1971 and 1981 she appeared as a piano soloist with some 100 symphony orchestras across the country under the transparently phony name Dame Illya Dillya. Although her performances were spiced with humor, she took the music seriously. A review of one of her concerts in The San Francisco Examiner called her “a fine concert pianist with a firm touch.”
She also appeared on Broadway, stepping into the lead role in “Hello, Dolly!” for three months in late 1969 and early 1970. She painted, too. And she wrote a number of books, including “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints,” “The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them” and her autobiography.
Her marriage to Sherwood Diller lasted 26 years; in 1965, the same year the Dillers divorced, she married Warde Donovan, an actor. That marriage, too, ended in divorce. She never remarried, but she was the companion of Robert Hastings, a lawyer, from the mid-1980s until his death in 1996.
Ms. Diller is survived by a son, Perry; a daughter, Suzanne Mills; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
When she appeared in Las Vegas in May 2002, three years after suffering a heart attack, Ms. Diller announced that this would be her last stand-up performance. She stuck to that decision. Her final performance was captured in the 2004 documentary “Goodnight, We Love You,” directed by Gregg Barson.
Asked by Bob Thomas of The Associated Press in 2005 whether she missed performing, Ms. Diller answered: “I don’t miss the travel. I miss the laughter. I do miss the actual hour.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m on dope, but that hour is a high; it’s as good as you can feel. A wonderful, wonderful happiness, and great power.”
Forget About It (2005)
West From North Goes South (2004)
Motocross Kids (2004)
Hip! Edgy! Quirky! (2002)
Last Place On Earth, The (2002)
Everything’s Jake (2000)
Debtors, The (1999)
Bug’s Life, A (1998) (voice)
Silence of the Hams, The (1995)
Perfect Man, The (1993)
Happily Ever After (1993) (voice)
Boneyard, The (1991)
Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog (1990)
Nutcracker Prince, The (1990) (voice)
Doctor Hackenstein (1988)
Pink Motel (1983)
Pleasure Doing Business, A (1979)
Adding Machine, The (1969)
Silent Treatment (1968)
Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968)
Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell, The (1968)
Mad Monster Party? (1967) (voice)
Eight on the Lam (1967)
Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966)
Fat Spy, The (1965)
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
TELEVISION SERIES, SPECIALS & VIDEOS
Quintuplets (2005) The Bold and the Beautiful (1995-2004)
Nuttiest Nutcracker (1999)(voice)
Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990) (voice)
Jonathan Winters: On the Ledge (1987)
Phyllis Diller’s 102nd Birthday Party (1974)
The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians (1970) (voice)
The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show (1968)
Phyllis Diller Special (1968)
The Pruitts of Southampton (1966-1967)
Phyllis Diller Special (1963)
Show Street (1965)
TELEVISION GUEST APPEARANCES
Ms. Diller has appeared on every prominent TV show of the last two decades including 23 “Bob Hope Specials”
All Nonsense News Network
Steve Allen Show (20+ shows)
A.M. Los Angeles
Julie Andrews Show
Annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Sports Classic
Chuck Barris Rah Rah Hour
Jack Benny Show
Boy Meets World
Carol Burnett Show
Dick Cavett Show
Cheapskates Guide to the Best of Everything
Christmas at Walt Disney World
Circus of the Stars (4 shows)
Norm Crosby Comedy Shop
John Davidson Show
Do or Diet Show
Phil Donahue Show
Mike Douglas Show
David Frost Show
Jackie Gleason Show
The Gong Show
Good Morning America
Merv Griffin Show
The Home Show
Bob Hope Show (23 specials)
How Hollywood Stays in Shape
Jack Jones Show
Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them
Kiss My Act
Late Night with Conan O’Brien
Later with Bob Costas
Let Me In I Hear Laughing
Live with Regis & Kathie Lee
The Love Boat
39 Weeks and Counting
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Made in Hollywood
Barbara Mandrell Show
Dean Martin Roasts
Dean Martin Show
Monte Carlo Show
Jim Nabors Show
Tony Orlando Show
Jack Paar Show
Regis Philbin Show
The Joan Rivers Show
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In
The Pat Sajak Show
Salute to Gordon Sinclair
Dinah Shore Show
Richard Simmons Show
Red Skelton Show
The Ed Sullivan Show
Toni Tennille Show
Alan Thicke Show
This Is Your Life
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
The Twenty-Four Days of Christmas
Unrehearsed Antics of the Stars
The Bobby Vinton Show
John Wayne Special
Whatever Happened To…
Jonathan Winters Showtime Special
Andy Williams Show
Flip Wilson Show
Women Who Rate a 10
Larry King Live
Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse – Released February 2005
Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints (Out of Print)
Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual
The Complete Mother
The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them
Live from San Francisco (Live) (Laugh.com)
The Best of Phyllis Diller (Phantom)
Phyllis Diller Laughs (Verve)
Are You Ready for Phyllis Diller? (Verve)
Great Moments of Comedy with Phyllis Diller (Verve)
Born to Sing (Columbia)
Harold Arlen Revisited (Crewe Records)