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Phyllis Diller: Standup Comedian Was The Original Desperate Housewife

Icons | December 20, 2017

THE PRUITTS OF SOUTHAMPTON - Gallery - Shoot Date: April 5, 1966. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Phyllis Diller was one of the first female comedians of her time, a woman who took to the standup stage when it was a men-only profession. With her outrageous routines, she presented a funhouse-mirror version of femininity: big hair, big outfits, over-the-top garrulousness, all delivered with a wink and a cackle. Audiences didn't know what to make of her, but they laughed anyway. Her success opened up the industry for female comedy voices including Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and Roseanne Barr.

Diller was originally a working-class wife and mother of five. She didn’t break in to show business until she reached the ancient age of 37 years old. Besides being a homemaker, prior to her comedic success, she also worked in public relations at a radio station and was a newspaper advice columnist. 

Diller Had To Break Into A Boys' Club

Early on, Phyllis Diller was encouraged to pursue a career in comedy because she was such a “natural.” At the time, women were to be seen and not heard. Phyllis, however, began her comedic career being both seen and heard.

Prior to Diller’s heyday, male comedians were prominent and consistently ragging on their women and all women in general. At that time and even now, it was socially acceptable for the poor, put-upon man, to make light of his awful home life.

It was the era of, to quote Henny Youngman's most famous one-liner, "Take my wife... please!"

With the arrival of Phyllis Diller, all was fair in love, war and comedy. Diller brought public attention to the fact that marriage is a two-way street. Until then, any marital discord was assumed to be the fault of the wife. She didn’t come right out and say it but, she wasn’t having any of it.

The Housewife From Hell

Soon after realizing her comedic success, Diller had to come up with a persona. It wasn’t long before she emerged into the crazed housewife. She was an attractive woman but played down her looks for the sake of her stage persona. When on stage, her loud clothes and disheveled hair became her signature look. She became the antidote to the “stupid wife” joke. She shamelessly (albeit lovingly)poked  fun at her husband, whom she called "Fang," and their relationship. She was funny and right on point.

Finding Humor In A Housewife's Life

"Fang" was actually the result of an ad-lib and could have been anyone from Buddy Hackett to Bob Hope. She was in need of material and… there it was, under her own roof. She was beginning to make her way and referred to her own personal knowledge and experiences. By doing so, she unintentionally created her niche.

Diller made fun of herself and her marriage by dressing in outlandish, crazy, ill-fitting clothing that was not thought of as feminine at the time. She teased her hair into disheveled hairdos to portray an unkempt and unattractive appearance; claiming that Peeping Toms begged her to put her clothes back on or pull her window shades down.

Phyllis Diller Used Self-Mockery To Make Serious Points

As Phyllis Diller’s persona evolved, she became the epitome of the brutal reality of the American housewife. Although it wasn’t politically correct at the time, she was a woman who spoke her mind. She pioneered a comedic feminism that done in jest but had a brutal ring of truth to it.

Diller was a woman of great insight and viewed life with a true spirit of reality. She was of the opinion that, “it is, what it is”. Then and now, that is hard to argue with. She had an outlook on life that was not only incredibly funny but also, real. One thing she was always able to do was laugh at herself.

The Original Desperate Housewife

Diller portrayed a woman that who her place but knew there was more in life that she was missing out on. Her professional persona was that of a “flawed” woman. To some extent, she may have really believed that she was that person. It's possible she never gave herself the credit she deserved. In real life, she was a beautiful, talented, valuable woman who had an influence in the lives of many other women.

Although Phyllis Diller entertained us with her light-hearted comedy, she was extremely humble and never really considered herself among the greatest.

Tags: Phyllis Diller | TV In The 1960s | What Did She Do?...

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.