Her•Story: Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller (July 17, 1917 – August 20, 2012) was a comedienne, author, and actress best known for her colorful costumes, wild blonde wigs, and her self-deprecating “eccentric housewife” character. She began her career at the age of 37 and became extremely popular in the 1960s. An appearance on the Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life led to an invitation to appear at The Purple Onion Comedy Club, which spring-boarded her into television. Diller’s comedy routine revolved around a quirky housewife persona, and her routines were filled with sharp one-liners and stories about a husband called “Fang”. Although “Fang” was an invented character, she drew her material from her own experiences as a wife and mother; her humor was invented to cope with the drudgery of her life before entering show business. Diller usually took the stage wearing brightly colored clothing and outrageous hair that were matched by her equally flamboyant facial expressions and her signature cackling laugh.

Diller’s career would prove to be a barrier-buster for women. She proved that women could not only be funny, they could have successful careers in the male-dominated field of stand-up comedy. Talent agent Fred Wostbrock credits Diller with paving the way for comediennes like Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres. In addition to Diller’s stand-up work, her many credits include voice acting for the animated television series Family Guy and Robot Chicken, appearances on Blossom, The Love Boat, and her own television series The Phyllis Diller Show. Her movie credits include The Sunshine Boys and A Bug’s Life.
Diller’s personal life was not always easy. She suffered through the heartbreak of outliving three of her six children. One of her sons died only a few weeks after his birth. Her oldest child, Peter, died of cancer in 1998, and her daughter Stephanie died of a stroke in 2002. Diller has also experienced struggles with her own health, and was given a pacemaker after surviving a heart attack in 1999.
Throughout all of this, Diller tried to maintain a positive outlook, and she did not need a belief in God to do it. In a 2011 interview with Out she expressed a Humanist sentiment, saying, “I am a kind person. I'm kind to everybody. I treat everybody the same, and I'm proud of that. In fact, that's my religion."
Diller passed away in her Los Angeles home at the age of ninety-five. She is survived by three children and several grandchildren.