Joan Rivers on Phyllis Diller: 'She Worked Like a Man'
In her own words, the comedian remembers her friend, a pioneering stand-up who paved the way and never had the attitude, "Poor me, I'm a woman."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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.