Phyllis Diller's Lessons for Funny Ladies

Phyllis Diller has died at the age of 95. It seems relevant to mention that very recently we were talking about whether women can be funny or not. Of course they can be. Diller was a special example, though.

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Phyllis Diller has died at the age of 95. It seems relevant to mention that very recently we were talking about whether women can be funny or not. It's a topic that comes up repeatedly, even though, of course women can be funny, to say otherwise is simply an attempt to get people to talk about you, probably because you're not funny enough to manage it in a better way. Diller is one example of a woman being hysterically funny—but she's a special one.

As Peter Keepnews writes in Diller's New York Times obituary, Diller was "a 37-year-old homemaker when she took up comedy, mined her domestic life for material, assuring audiences that she fed Fang [her husband] and her kids garbage soup and buried her ironing in the backyard." Way back in the 1950s, she was humorously riffing on the concept of the "perfect housewife," making self-deprecating jokes about her looks, style, and skill in the traditional art of "womanhood," and, generally giving stereotypes and the patriarchy the what-for. She may also have been the first queen of the underbrag (i.e., "Our dog died from licking our wedding picture").

She was not the first female stand-up comedian, as Keepnews writes, but "There were precious few women before her, if any, who could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or overpower an audience with such an outrageous personality." And while some have said that Diller focused on such topics to make her less of a threat to male comedians, I think that there's a case to be made for the opposite. She was one of the first people to claim the idea, humorously, that there is no perfect housewife, that these stereotypes are a sham, and that we can admit to our mistakes and even have some fun in doing so. This was subversive, maybe, but it was also owning a kind of female independence. To be able to make fun of yourself, to be able to admit you're not perfect, to be able to flout the expectations placed upon your gender, is, in fact, a tremendous kind of power. She was not afraid to look "unattractive"; to dress up in clothes that made her look heavy (she was not); or to send off an array of quips and bon mots likely not to meet with the approval of the patriarchy. She was courageously funny, in that she wasn't afraid to make people laugh about things that may not have been "acceptably" funny at all.

She also wrote the majority of her own wisdom-imbued jokes. Here are a few from around the Web: 

  • "Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?"
  • "Best way to get rid of kitchen odors: Eat out."
  • "Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room." 
  • “I gotta rash that’s movin’ so fast I can hear it.”
  • "It's a good thing that beauty is only skin deep, or I'd be rotten to the core."
  • "I'm eighteen years behind in my ironing."
  • "Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight."
  • "What I don't like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day."

Keepnews adds, "Ms. Diller’s hard-hitting approach to one-liners — inspired by Bob Hope, who became an early champion — was something new for a woman. Her success proved that female comedians could be as aggressive or unconventional as their male counterparts, and leave an audience just as devastated. She cleared the way for the likes of Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and numerous others."

Someone like Adam Corolla, who claims that women aren't funny, wishes he had one iota of the sense of humor and comedy chops Diller had. Of course, if she'd heard him say that, she would have had a brilliant comeback, we're sure.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.