SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Phyllis Diller died this week at the age of 95, much was made of the way she burst open doors for women in comedy. She also showed a way for people to make a midlife crisis into a breakthrough. She was an Eisenhower-era housewife in the smokestack-and-factory-whistle suburbs of Oakland, California, whose husband worked at the naval air base. They had five children and could use some extra income. Phyllis, who'd been an art and music student in her youth, also had extra unfulfilled ambitions to entertain. She volunteered at veteran's hospitals for the Red Cross. I played, sang, told jokes, she told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, while they yelled leave us alone. We're already in pain. She auditioned at the Purple Onion, a hip cellar club in San Francisco's North Beach with the likes of young Woody Allen and Mort Saul who would make jokes about politics, pop culture and philosophy. They were young, they were smart, but mostly knew about what they'd read and seen. Phyllis Diller made jokes about what she knew - herself - and made the anxieties of growing older sound edgy, outrageous and authentic.
PHYLLIS DILLER: A woman hits 40 going 90 miles an hour. And, boy, that's a crack-up. One morning, she gets up, she looks in the mirror, she punches the panic button. She says I got to be younger by lunch. Then she goes through a whole list of idiotic ideas like renting smaller children.
SIMON: Just a couple of years later, she was a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show. Groucho seemed flabbergasted that a mother of five in her forties would try to be a comedian, but after she told a couple of jokes he waggled his cigar and said:
GROUCHO MARX: Wow. And that was very good, Phyllis, and I'm sure you're going to be a big success in show business.
SIMON: And she was for more than half a century. Phyllis Diller's son, Perry, says he found his mother passed away in her bed with a smile on her face. I think she must have seen Groucho.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DILLER: (Singing) Smile as though your heart is aching, smile even though it's breaking, when there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by. If you smile through your fear and sorrow, smile, maybe tomorrow you'll see the sun come shining through for you. Light up your face with gladness, hide every trace of sadness...
SIMON: Phyllis Diller with Pink Martini. You're listening to NPR News.
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