Phyllis Diller: 1917-2012
In her own words, Joan Rivers fondly remembers her friend, a pioneering stand-up comedian who paved the way and never had the attitude of, "Poor me, I'm a woman."
When I was just starting out, I did a routine at the Bon Soir nightclub in New York. I was really shaky and on the bill with a girl named Barbra Streisand. And Phyllis Diller was in the crowd -- one of the first great stand-up comedians. She sat there and applauded and laughed the absolute loudest. Believe me, we weren't bringing down the house back then. She was wonderful and encouraging to the young comedians -- everything I'm not. After I got friendly with her, I told her what that meant to me. She broke the field for women. She didn't sing. She didn't dance. She would come out, say wonderfully funny things and go home. Phyllis said, "This is what I am: I'm a funny woman, I'm a funny housewife, and I need a job." That's why she started in her late 30s -- and she worked like a man. She didn't ask for help and didn't complain. She never had the attitude of, "Poor me, I'm a woman." I was always in awe of her. If something happened that afternoon in politics, she already had a comment about it. I would go see her and say: "Oh, shit! Why didn't I think of that?" Take away the wig, the stupid dresses and just listen to the lines. She was smart, smart, smart. She was very chic and not what you saw onstage. She would wear Chanel suits and was a wonderful pianist and would paint. I had brunch with her not even a month ago, and she didn't miss a beat. We talked a lot about new comedians like Louis C.K. and HBO's Little Britain. She was all there. She had a great life. She was in her own home and had lots of friends, and she even had a beau -- how about that at her age? So I'm not upset. She wasn't sitting around being forgotten. Melissa [Rivers] and I were planning to use her in an upcoming episode of our show, and now I'm mad at her because I have to go back and rewrite episode five. We exchanged necklaces that day. She was wearing a very pretty necklace, and I was wearing one of mine, and we exchanged. So now I'm really excited to have her necklace -- but it's not as pretty as Joan Rivers' jewelry. She got a better deal on the necklace. -- As told to Leslie Bruce
HER FRIENDS REMEMBER
George Schlatter, Laugh-In executive producer: "It's impossible to say the name Phyllis Diller and not smile. She was an original. She was one of the first truly liberated females who stood for women's rights. Phyllis was more than a comedienne: She was a writer, a brilliant musician and a feminist before there was a word for feminism. She never said anything mean about anyone other than her husband, Fang: All of her jokes were about herself. She not only created comedy, but she appreciated comedy. She was a delight to work with, and she never met a punch line that she didn't make better."
Carol Burnet: "Phyllis has been a dear friend for many years. She was a pioneer for women standup comedians. I was with her a few weeks ago, and she had me on the floor with a few choice jokes. Funny, charming and loving. … I'll miss her."
Carl Reiner: "That laugh of hers should have been patented. It was the way she'd set the tone that made you smile. You never saw Phyllis Diller and didn't at least smile. When she first started out, there weren't many women doing stand-up comedy. There was Jean Carroll, who was on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then Joan Rivers. They started the trend, and now there are legions of them. I didn't work with her that much, but I spent some time with her. She didn't live that far away. I used to get lovely cards from her on birthdays or when she had something to say. She was the kind of person who'd send you baked goods. She was one of the sweetest women ever. As a matter of fact, she was too sweet to be in comedy."