Comedienne Phyllis Diller Legendary comedienne Phyllis Diller talks about her career, her hats and wigs, and the release of her new DVD, "Goodnight, We Love You."
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Comedienne Phyllis Diller

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Comedienne Phyllis Diller

Comedienne Phyllis Diller

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll look at the new cholesterol drug that Pfizer pulled from testing this week citing safety concerns. And we'll answer your questions about this new class of drugs that not only lower your bad cholesterol but also raise the good. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, comedian Phyllis Diller. She's had us laughing for a long, long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHYLLIS DILLER (Comedian): You know you're old when your walker has an airbag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Halley's comet goes over and you say there it goes again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: In a new documentary called "Goodnight, We Love You,” you can hear Phyllis Diller's signature giggle and all about her five decades in showbiz. To see clips from the DVD go to

Today she's joining us from our studios at NPR West. And welcome, so good to have you.

Ms. DILLER: Well, it's good to be here, my dear.

NEARY: And I want to remind our listeners that if you have any questions for Phyllis Diller about her life in comedy you can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or send us an e-mail to

Phyllis, when you began your comedy career you were a mother of five, you were a housewife - what was then called a housewife - what sort of propelled you into show business? What made you become a stand-up comic?

Ms. DILLER: Poverty. And my husband. My husband, Sherwood Diller, insisted that I become a comic.

NEARY: Did you have any idea of how to go about doing it? I mean…

Ms. DILLER: Well, the thing is I had been doing it all my life without realizing it, because I'm a born comic. I was born funny. I think funny. And it was always my attitude toward life was funny.

NEARY: Yeah. When you did it, though, not very many women were in the world of stand-up comedy, which can be a pretty macho kind of place and a pretty tough kind of place. What was it like? How did you begin? It was different then. I mean, you didn't go to the comedy clubs.

Ms. DILLER: No, there weren't any. There weren't any. And what there were, were a few very, chic discovery clubs that you had to get into or in the early days of television to get on “The Tonight Show.” That was almost a sure way if you could do it and be funny.

But actually there weren't any female stand-up comics because all of the men were in that year and all that whole time working double. Like Martin and Lewis, Sandler and Young, Burns and Carol. I mean, there weren't any even male stand-up comics.

NEARY: So how did you - like how did - you didn't go from being a housewife to suddenly being on Johnny Carson. What was the route?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Well, I…

NEARY: Because I remember seeing you on “The Tonight Show.”

Ms. DILLER: Of course, because I've been on with all four hosts. The guy who invented it - Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno. It's an ongoing traditional show. And it's a wonderful show. And now I forgot your question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: There's that laugh. So that's your real laugh. That's not just…

Ms. DILLER: It's my real laugh. I can't help it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Well, you see I got a job in one of those darling little clubs where they have a very highbrow, esoteric audience. They were always sort of built around a gay bar. And those clubs were in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area. And they were wonderful places. It wasn't like working at a terrible bar or a dump. They were good places.

NEARY: You didn't get hecklers there, so much.

Ms. DILLER: Oh, yes. You always get - all new comics are going to get hecklers.

NEARY: That's part of your…

Ms. DILLER: You know why?


Ms. DILLER: They don't know your name and they have more power than you do. They think. Until you show them whether you have power or not, which of course I suppose you're thinking of Michael - what's his name.

NEARY: Richards.

Ms. DILLER: Oh, already I forgot him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And we can just forget him. We can move on.

Ms. DILLER: You think so?

NEARY: Yeah we can, because I want to talk about you and I want to talk about your comedy because that's what you're here for.

Ms. DILLER: Well, we've got to tell them about this thing that I'm trying to make them go out and buy. It's - took me ages to memorize that. And I don't know what it means.

NEARY: That's the DVD. That's the DVD, which is a documentary…

Ms. DILLER: That's the DVD.

NEARY: …of your final performance.

Ms. DILLER: Yes.

NEARY: And we also want to hear a little bit from your farewell tour. I'm going to play a little tape from that and then I'm going to ask you a little bit about this. We've got some tape from that. We're going to play it now. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Goodnight, We Love You”)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: I was just so ugly. Oh, I don't know how to tell you. I wore a choke chain until I was 12.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: My own Ouija board told me to go to hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: A peeping Tom threw up on my windowsill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: I was actually the world's ugliest baby. When I was born, the doctor slapped everybody.

NEARY: Now, I have to ask you about that, because so much of your humor, you were making fun of yourself and you were calling yourself ugly, and was that ever hard for you?

Ms. DILLER: Not at all. That was the best part of it. I still think those are the funniest, funniest, funniest lines.

NEARY: When you sort of began your act, is that how you conceived of it, that you were going to be making fun of yourself?

Ms. DILLER: No, no, no, no, no. You - it's a wonderful thing about comedy. You learn everything you know from the audience. I started out doing very esoteric-type stuff that wouldn't have gotten me next door, let alone out of the block.

I'll give you an example. I did a parody of Giancarlo Menotti's “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” You know, that's not very commercial. Nobody would have understood it. but in these little clubs, you could do some things that were very chic and very out, very avant. But you see, you learn - if you don't learn from your audience, you don't make it.

But little by little by little - and I used to sing and do things and anything trying to find my way and my niche. But I found that I wanted to get more laughs closer together, and that means becoming a stand-up. I was not a stand-up in the beginning because I used props. A stand-up is alone, without a partner, in (unintelligible), meaning right in front of the curtain and responsible for your own material. It's a very special thing to be a stand-up.

NEARY: You kind of created a character, really. I mean, the Phyllis Diller that we saw, the stand-up comedian, is different from who you really are. I mean you wore this outrageous wig and you wore outrageous clothes, but that's pretty different from you in your real life.

Ms. DILLER: Oh yes. She was a harridan, and she was an idiot, and she tried to put everybody else down where she was the one who was doing everything wrong.

NEARY: But a lot of people thought that was really you.

Ms. DILLER: Well, I don't care.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: It doesn't matter what they think, as long as they laugh.

NEARY: All right, let's - we're going to back to this tape. We're going to hear more from you. And in this particular part of your act, you're talking about not being able to cook. Let's hear that.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Goodnight, We Love You”)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: The only thing domestic about me is that I was born in this country.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: We got a ring around the tub you can set a drink on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: The house is full of bugs, and I couldn't care less. I wear flea collars around both ankles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: There isn't a person in our family that's got the guts to eat raison toast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: One night for dinner I fixed something so bad the cat covered it.

NEARY: Now the irony is on this DVD, in this documentary, we see you reveling in your kitchen. You're a great cook, as it turns out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Well, you know. Oh but my dear Lynn, I swear, when I hear my own material, I still smile and I still have to laugh. I think it's that good.

NEARY: But you are a great cook, aren't you? I've got to get that in.

Ms. DILLER: Oh that. Oh that. Well, you know what? I think I am. I just - I had a call - excuse me - from Elliott Gould. He's one of my friends with whom I play gin, and I always cook dinner for him. And I always allow him to order what he'd like to eat because I do love to cook and I am a good cook. I'm not a gourmet cook, but I'm a good cook.

And I said - he had ordered lamb chops. And then he thought about it, and he said no, I want your meatloaf. I make the world's greatest meatloaf.

NEARY: That's great.

Ms. DILLER: See, now, that's not gourmet; it's just good food.

NEARY: Yeah, that's right.

Ms. DILLER: The best.

NEARY: I just want to remind our listeners, if you have any questions for Phyllis Diller, the number is 800-989-8255. And we are going to go to Lindy(ph), and Lindy is calling from North Carolina, I believe. Are you there, Lindy?

LINDY (Caller): Yes I am.

NEARY: Go ahead.

LINDY: Hi. Phyllis, I have heard that you are a good cook, but I always want to say that I saw you - I think I was in first grade because you came out to dinner at my mom and dad's house, Bill(ph) and Cora(ph) in Summit, New Jersey. And I thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and the most fascinating. And it's fun to think of how much fun - you have gained popularity from making fun of your looks when I thought you were so beautiful. I don't know if you remember going out to Summit, New Jersey, and Bill and Cora.

Ms. DILLER: What was their last name?

LINDY: Marinas(ph).

Ms. DILLER: Oh wait a minute! Why didn't you tell me you're a Marinas.

LINDY: Yeah.

Ms. DILLER: Oh my God. I had such a crush on your father, Bill Marinas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Oh of course I remember all of that. I was served a wonderful turkey dinner

LINDY: (Unintelligible) I sat beside you, and then you gave us lovely photographs, and you signed them, and I took them to school so proud.

Ms. DILLER: And you were one of the little kids.

LINDY: I am one of the little kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Oh my dear. Your father was such a brilliant man. He was - I had a mad, wild crush on him in high school, and then he ran off with Cora.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDY: Here I am for it.

Ms. DILLER: Well, nice to hear your voice.

NEARY: Thanks for calling, Lindy.

LINDY: Thank you, thank you. Bye-bye.

NEARY: There you go again. We hear testimony of how beautiful you were, and yet you didn't play that up at all in your comedy. You know, something that I was thinking as I was listening to your act is - and it's very different from the comedy today, I think - those one-liners that you shot out. That was a real mark of what the stand-up comic did at that time, I think.

Ms. DILLER: That is true. And you can't just say at that time because this Rodney Dangerfield was the same type of operator.

NEARY: Right.

Ms. DILLER: All one-liners. In other words, it's the only way in the world to get as many laughs as you can out of an audience, because you don't have long set-ups, and you don't do, like, sitcom.

NEARY: Right. But you've got to come up with a lot of them to get through a show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Well yes, you certainly do. Someone clocked me one night at 800 one-liners.

NEARY: Oh, you're kidding. That's incredible.

Ms. DILLER: Well, that means you've got a good memory and you've got to hook them all together so it sounds like an act. It mustn't sound like you're reading them out of a book. You have to make it - it has to sound like a story.

NEARY: Yeah. Let me remind the audience that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

My guest is Phyllis Diller. The number is 1-800-989-8255. And we're going to go to Bryant(ph), and he's in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

BRYANT (Caller): Hi, Phyllis. Hi, Lynn.


BRYANT: Hey, Phyllis, in 1994, I bought a bar from a guy named John Ferris(ph) in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and he said you used to come in and crack the patrons up with your jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Oh my. I was a young housewife with only two children at that time and already drinking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Ypsilanti. I lived there for three years. Just outside of Detroit. And it's cold.

BRYANT: Yeah, it's a tough place, but it's getting better. But people still talk about you and think you were funny then and you're funny now.

Ms. DILLER: Oh, isn't that sweet.

NEARY: So do you advertise the fact that Phyllis Diller used to come in there and…

BRYANT: Well, people ask me about it all the time, and it's on my Web site. I won't try to promote on the air, but there's a little (unintelligible) people ask me occasionally, and I say yup, that's what the person I bought it from said, that Phyllis was one of his customers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Well, that's where I learned to cook, incidentally, in Ypsilanti. Because I was newly married, in fact only a year married, and didn't know how to boil an egg. And so there was a little darling, precious neighborhood grocery, which was owned by a guy by the name of Dykman(ph). And he was the sole owner and the sole person, and every morning I would take a cookbook over to him because I didn't know one piece of meat from another, and he would help me put together my evening meal for Sherwood Diller and me. And he would help me pick the meat out and all this and all that, and he literally taught me to cook.

BRYANT: (Unintelligible) come on back. We've got your barstool waiting for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay. Thanks for your call, Bryant.

Ms. DILLER: Bless your heart.

BRYANT: All right, Phyllis, thanks.

Ms. DILLER: Thank you.

NEARY: You know, I wanted to ask you about that. You made a lot of jokes at your own expense, but you also made some jokes at your husband's expense. You used to call your husband Fang.

Ms. DILLER: Yes.

NEARY: And your kids, too. Did it bother them?

Ms. DILLER: We've got to make it very clear. Sherwood Diller, my real husband, was not Fang in the act any more than I was that, what do you call it, well, that harridan that I made myself. The harridan is married to the theatrical Fang. Sherwood Diller is married to Phyllis Diller, the little housewife.

NEARY: All right, well, let's hear a little more from your act, and I think the next cut we're going to hear does deal with your family. Here we go.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Goodnight, We Love You”)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Far too many kids. At one time, in our playpen it was standing room only.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: It looked like a bus stop for midgets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: It used to get so damp in there we'd get a rainbow above it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: I named them all Kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: They've got different first names, like Hey Kid, You Kid, Dumb Kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: And they are dumb.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: But Fang is even dumber. He thinks he's their father.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Did you ever try your act out on…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: I still think I'm funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: It's good to be able to amuse yourself, it really is.

Ms. DILLER: Isn't it? My God. I still read joke books. And I must say that because of knowing so many and working with it for so many years, it's very difficult to read a new joke.

NEARY: All right, we're going to take one more call before you have to go. We're going to talk to John(ph). He's in California. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Phyllis, how are you doing?

Ms. DILLER: Good.

JOHN: I have a question. I have a picture, it's an old picture, and I think it's Danny Thomas' birthday. It's a bunch of comedians and you're the only woman. I was wondering if you felt like you were one of the guys or what?

Ms. DILLER: I'll tell you what. I've always been one of the guys, and they were so darling to me. And I have so many pictures of a whole bunch of guys and just me because that was the name of the game. I was in, I was one of them, and I learned from them, and they were generous with their acceptance. And it warms my heart.

NEARY: Now, I have to ask you. This is - this DVD is all about your farewell tour. Is it really a - is it over? You're not going to tour again?

Ms. DILLER: Oh, darling, that was 2002. It took Gregg Barson, a wonderful producer who did the film, took him two years to do it. And I've been a - not a housewife - I've been…

NEARY: You've been relaxing ever since.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLER: Well, I've been just a person for four years now.

NEARY: Well, good talking to you.

Ms. DILLER: But I'm still busy.

NEARY: Good talking to you, Phyllis. We're running out of time, but it was great talking to you.

Ms. DILLER: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Comedian Phyllis Diller joining us from the studios at NPR West. Her DVD is called “Goodnight, I Love You.” This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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