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Comic Phyllis Diller, the Betty Friedan of Comedy, Dies at 95

A collection of the standup comic's jokes, costumes and even her signature prop–the cigarette holder–reside at the American History Museum

smithsonian.com

Phyllis Diller, the much-loved comedic star of zany wigs, painful gag lines and an inimitable blast of a laugh, died this morning at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.

Last fall, the National Museum of American History debuted a collection of highlights from Diller’s multifaceted career. The show, entitled “Have You Heard the One . . ?”  included a relic from the star’s life that might be among the most unique artifacts in the history of the performing arts—Diller’s joke file. The 48-drawer, steel file cabinet, which the star called “my life in one-liners,” contains 50,000 jokes, each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”

Diller’s famous one liners took self-deprecation to new limits. “When I first got into this business, I thought a punchline was organized drinking.” One can almost hear the ensuing blast of her famous laugh. And of course her relationship with her husband Fang was without exception, always good fodder. “Fang has some very strange ideas about housework. He thinks I should do it.”

“The file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”

Diller, it turns out was not only the boisterous comic of late night television. She was a multifaceted artist who besides stand-up comedy enjoyed painting and sculpture and was a classical pianist. According to American History’s curator of the performing arts, Dwight Blocker Bowers, she also harbored tendencies toward museum curation. Bowers remembers arriving at Diller’s home in 2006 to arrange for the donation. “She was the most organized donor I’d ever met.”

“She had a rack of her costumes that she wished to donate. Each costume came with a plastic bag attached to it and inside the bag, she had carefully included not only the props—her cigarette holder, the head-dress, the gloves, the shoes—but also a photograph of her wearing the entire ensemble. She was better at curation than I was,” Bowers jokes.

The museum is now home to an impressive Diller collection that includes ten of her costumes, a wig, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller’s signature props. (The cigarette was wooden: “I’ve never smoked,” Bowers says she always insisted.)  The cache also includes a number of photographs—including one of her wearing the green and gold lame gown from her Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967—three of her comedy albums, and the scripts from two of her 1960s television shows. She also donated several of her sculptures including a self-portrait bust and one made of her hands. A curious relic of her artistic talents includes the painting she called “The Phyllis Fuge.” It depicts the notes of a musical score that she wrote.

“She was an artist,” Bowers says. “She was an accomplished pianist, she painted, she sculpted and she did stand-up comedy.”

“We even received two recordings of her singing,” Bowers added.

But did she have a good voice? “Well, she was not the recording industry’s best singer,” Bowers demurs, “but she was the best comedian.”

“I think the most important thing I can say about Phyllis Diller,” says Bowers, “is that she was like Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Just like Friedan, Phyllis Diller chronicled the daily lives of woman. But she did it with laughs.”

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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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