Editor's Note, August 20, 2012: Phyllis Diller died today at the age of 95. In 2007, Owen Edwards wrote about her joke cabinet in the Smithsonian collections as part of the Object at Hand department.
"I'm not a comedienne," Phyllis Diller says, at home in Los Angeles, gently correcting the word I had used to describe what she does. "Comediennes may do other stuff, like acting or singing. I'm a comic, a hard-core stand-up, so I'm responsible for my own material."
Diller was one of the first celebrity comics of the television age, beginning with her appearances in the mid-1950s on the "Jack Paar Show" (the standard-setter for Carson, Leno, Letterman, et al., and, according to Diller, "the only one who ever truly understood me"). At 89, Diller, retired from life on the road and on screens big and small ("the spirit is willing but not the dangling flesh"), and donated her personal trove of jokes—50,000 or so, housed in a steel filing cabinet of safe-like dimensions—to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Even the alphabetized categories evoke a laugh: "Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping..." "Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names..."
Diller's brand of humor was rooted in self-deprecation; she was, more often than not, her own target. Take this jibe, for example: "I love to shop for shoes," the routine goes. "It's the only place where a man tells me that I'm a 10." She was not, however, averse to skewering others. There was a time, she once quipped, when she had worked for an editor "who was so mean that he used to eat thumbtacks for breakfast with skimmed water."
"The [joke] file is like a tree," says Diller. "Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old." Along with this cache—Diller refers to it as "my life in one-liners"—she also donated memorabilia including the green-and-gold lamŽ gown worn on a Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller's signature props, that put the finishing touch on the slinky outfit. (The cigarette was wooden: "I've never smoked," she says.)
"The precision of the file's organization," says Smithsonian curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, "shows that she knew exactly what she was doing every step of the way in her career." After the museum reopens in 2008 after renovations, Bowers intends to put the joke file on display, possibly as an interactive exhibit with audio and video clips. "It will show people that comedy, for all its seeming spontaneity, is a serious business and a science."
(Ed. Note: Bowers did indeed succeed in his quest, but the exhibit is no longer on view)
Diller says that she always let the audience do the editing of her material for her. If people didn't laugh, or get it right away, the joke didn't survive. "You never blame the audience," she says. Thus, her advice to aspiring comics: "Go out and try it, and if you find out from the audience that you're not funny, quit."
I asked her for an example of a joke she had liked but the audience hadn't: she offered one about Fang, her onstage pet-name for her husband, Sherwood. "Fang's finest hour lasted a minute and a half." I howled, since this is a joke not only about Fang—satirized in Diller's jokes as an unrepentant couch potato—but a bit of wacky existentialism, a comment on slackerdom in all its glory.
"Well, bless your heart," Diller quips. "I wish you'd been in the audience that night."
Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.