Happy Birthday to a Great Lady
On July 17, 1917 Phyllis Ada Driver was born.
She officially became Phyllis Diller in 1939 when she married Sherwood Diller but didn’t become our Phyllis Diller until 15 years later. At the age of 37 with a husband who was unable to hold a job and five kids to support, Phyllis entered the world of stand-up comedy and, boy, are we lucky she did.
If you aren’t familiar with Phyllis, you should be. Google her performances, read her books, and absorb what she has to say. Phyllis helped to pave the way for the comics of today, especially female comics. With her outrageous costumes, recognizable laugh, and tons of great material, Phyllis didn’t just open comedy doors, she busted through them and then held ‘em ajar for so many more to follow.
Phyllis loved the business of comedy. She cared about the profession and the talents of young comedians. She never shied away from helping those following in her footsteps and was always there with an encouraging word. With Phyllis it was never “I got mine so you go get yours.” It was more “I got mine so what can I do to help you get yours.” A trait more of us should emulate.
But she also realized that comedy was something you had to work at. During an interview with ROUND TABLE she said, “There’s no such thing as a good beginning comic. They are all terrible.” This sounds harsh but she didn’t mean it to be and she included herself in this category. The point she was making and went on to explain is that you can’t just walk on stage and be funny. You have to prepare yourself, you have to learn, and you have to keep getting better. And she was the first person to admit that getting better was doable.
Phyllis tells the story of one of her early shows performing at a club. Before going on she found out that her comedy idol, Bob Hope, was in the audience. She went out on stage and bombed. After the show, she tried to sneak out without meeting Mr. Hope. She even hid behind a pillar to avoid him. Mr. Hope tracked her down. She apologized for her act that night but Mr. Hope wasn’t fazed. He said, “You have something. You’ll do fine.” Mr. Hope was right.
Phyllis also loved material. She wanted as much material as she could get. She didn’t want current event stuff but rather lines on everyday life. She wanted jokes that had a shelf life. Phyllis launched many a writing career by buying lines from housewives all across America. I know because my Dad was one of those “housewives” and Phyllis became his Fairy Godmother. Phyllis did something that not many people would do. She recognized the talent in Dad and guided him at the start of his career. She not only bought lines from Dad, she gave him the opportunity to come to California, she recommended him to Bob Hope, and continues to this day to be a mentor to him.
When I began writing comedy, Phyllis was one of my first sales. I still cherish a letter she sent to me about how exciting it was for her to watch Dad’s career takeoff and now to see me following in those footsteps.
There are so many lessons we can learn from Phyllis. She didn’t have it easy and fought for every job and gig she got. When she started out, she left her kids in the care of family so she could go on the road and make a living. She eventually divorced her husband only to be sued by him for control of her character, Fang. He claimed that he was Fang and therefore he owned all rights. Phyllis fought and won and Fang remained in her act.
There is so much we can learn about comedy from Phyllis but there’s even more we can learn about life from her. Her generosity was amazing. She would share her expertise, her advice, and her encouragement freely. She was known for sending gifts, notes, or postcards to her friends and those housewives who were submitting material. She didn’t expect anything in return.
When my dad was in his early 40’s he had to have open heart surgery. Phyllis was somewhere performing on the road and found out about it. She called Dad the night before the procedure. He said, “Phyllis, I have to admit, I’m scared.” Phyllis, who was known for her plastic surgeries, said, “Gene, just think of it as a chest lift.” She made him laugh.
Phyllis mastered everything. She was a successful comic, a skilled pianist, a gourmet cook—despite all the jokes. I once asked her daughter, Stephanie, what was the secret to all her successes. Stephanie said, “No matter what she does, she always pictures herself succeeding. It never ever enters her mind that she could fail.”
So Phyllis, happy birthday and thank you. Thank you for the laughs, thank you for the lessons, and thank you for being a truly remarkable woman that I still look up to.
Locally Grown Comedy Show
If you are looking for a fun evening the last Tuesday of the month, drop by Vitello’s in Studio City for Wendy Liebman’s Locally Grown Comedy Show. There’s plenty of good food, great camaraderie and lots and lots of laughs! Visit Vitello’s website for more information.
How to Succeed with Your Home Owners Association by Linda Perret
Owning your own home is the America dream. But often along with that comes a homeowner’s association. In this book, Linda explains the ins and outs of an association and how you can avoid many of the pitfalls. Whether you currently live in an HOA or looking to buy into one, this book is a must have. Order your copy here.
Master Course in
A 12-week email class that covers the basics of comedy writing. Features lessons and feedback.
Master Course in
A 9-step program that takes the writer through the process of developing a monologue. You will work on a topic of your own choosing.