One Funny Lady, or, How I Was Killed by Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller’s “Gag File”—a file cabinet full of her jokes—goes on display at the National Museum of American History today

Phyllis Diller's joke cabinet
Phyllis Diller's joke cabinet Photo courtesy of Hugh Talman, National Museum of American History

One of my great pleasures of writing The Object at Hand column, along with the chance to find and report wonderful “back stories,” has been the opportunity to interview remarkable people. Sometimes these interviewees aren’t well known, and sometimes they’re famous. Not being a household name is no indicator that an interview won’t be fun, any more than fame guarantees an intriguing conversation. But when fame and fascination mix, so much the better.

I found that happy mix interviewing the great clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, whose music had given so much joy to my parents, when he told me that after he retired, rich and successful, in his 50s, he never touched the clarinet again but went on to win many international shooting contests. And again when I talked to Mel Brooks about his time as a writer for Sid Caesar—on my cell phone on a California freeway, unable to take notes. But certainly one of my most memorable conversations was with the comedy star Phyllis Diller—memorable in large part because after getting off the phone with the comic, now in her 90s, my sides hurt from laughing.

The National Museum of American History now has on display Diller’s 48-drawer metal filing cabinet, each drawer filled with neatly organized cards that contain 50,000 jokes—give or take a knee slapper or two. Diller, whose career began in 1955—a bit late in life for someone taking on the rigors of standup comedy—told me that while jokes should seem spontaneous, collecting, recording and organizing material so that an act can be constantly refreshed is a key to success. Her cabinet of whimsical wonders was her way of doing that, and her long career as one of the pioneer women in comedy is testimony to how well it served her.

But back to the pain in my ribs. I have spent time with comedians and comedy writers who know what’s funny, and can make people laugh, but who are not notably funny in person, offstage. So I was prepared, as I dialed Diller’s number in Southern California, to have a sober talk about the business of comedy. I got plenty of good information, but what I also got was half an hour with a woman who is truly, spontaneously hilarious. There was nothing canned about her humor—for instance, she didn’t tell one joke of the vast trove she donated to the Smithsonian in 2003, not even any of the gags about “Fang,” her oft-targeted husband. But her response to my questions, and her way of telling tales from her long life, had me gasping for breath. Perhaps the most delight revelation of all was that Diller’s odd, three-beat laugh—Ha! Ha! Ha!—that I’d always assumed was part of her act when I watched her on television, is actually the way she laughs in life. And it’s infectious. When she laughed during our talk, I almost found myself laughing back the same way. She. Was. So. Funny.

-by contributor Owen Edwards

Watch the Smithsonian Channel video about the Gag File.

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