SCOTT SIMON, host:
Every comedian who happens to be a woman owes a little something to Phyllis Diller, as do plenty of male comedians. She turned some of the drudgery that can crop up in domestic life into fodder for comedy and transformed her own life, too. Some of her comic signatures became instantly recognizable--the husband named Fang, the hair that seemed charged with electricity and, and that laugh.
(Soundbite of Phyllis Diller laughing)
SIMON: This year at the age of 88, Phyllis Diller has published her autobiography, "Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy." She also appears in the upcoming documentary "The Aristocrats," about what's said to be the dirtiest joke ever told. Phyllis Diller retired from stand-up comedy in Las Vegas in May of 2002. Her final performance is the subject of Gregg Barson's documentary "Goodnight, We Love You." Phyllis Diller joins us from her home in Brentwood, California.
So nice to have you here. Thanks very much.
Ms. PHYLLIS DILLER (Comedian): Well, it's very important speaking to you in Washington.
SIMON: I wouldn't go that far. No, it's important speaking to you in Los Angeles. Can I ask you about the early days when you were just breaking into the business?
Ms. DILLER: What about them?
SIMON: As I recall, you were working at a television station in San Francisco.
Ms. DILLER: Oh, actually, I was a copywriter and I had decided to become a comic, and I didn't know how to start. So I thought you have a show and you try to find out where to do it. So I called the Red Cross and I said, `I have a show. Where do you want it?' And they said, `The Presidio.' Now that was an Army hospital. So my first show was in a room with four beds, and they pushed a piano in there on wheels. And I took my eldest son with me, and he had a banjo. And we did our little dumb show in that room. And three of the guys threw up and the other one re-enlisted. I'll never forget it. I sweat blood.
SIMON: Well, show business is...
Ms. DILLER: Now we were such a hit, they invited us back, darling.
Ms. DILLER: But when we went there, guess where they had put us? In the psychiatric ward! Holy mackerel. Here are these crazy, loony guys shuffling around in white pajamas trying to look down my front, and it's--my son, who was probably a 12-year-old little boy, said it was the first time he ever realized that I was a woman. Because they were all after me, and I wasn't that good-looking, you know. They were desperate.
SIMON: Now may I ask, why do you say things like, `I wasn't that good-looking'? I mean...
Ms. DILLER: I didn't like the way I looked. I had a broken, crooked nose and I had crooked teeth which my parents didn't want to pay to have fixed. And I had freckles and there was nothing excepting I had a good figure.
SIMON: Why did you begin to make jokes about your own appearance?
Ms. DILLER: Well, that's a good way to make friends with an audience, to let them know that you are not up there to show off or--you're there to entertain. And in my case, my entertainment is to get laughs. So whatever you want to do to get a laugh, if it works, do it.
SIMON: And to set the record straight, you were never actually married to a man named Fang, right?
Ms. DILLER: No, never. The real husband was a man named Sherwood Diller.
Ms. DILLER: And he was not dumb. It's just that he could not cope with life. The real Sherwood Diller was simply a copeless man.
SIMON: You write in your book that you had an unhappy home life. Is that part of what made you turn to comedy, do you think?
Ms. DILLER: Well, actually, it was Sherwood Diller, my husband, who almost forced me into it. He said, `You've got to become a comic.' I have to give him credit for my career.
SIMON: You had a line about him once that I read where you said he couldn't sell Windex to a peeping tom.
Ms. DILLER: And I mean that.
SIMON: Could you tell me about auditioning for Ed Sullivan? I guess he was in his bathrobe.
Ms. DILLER: Well, this dear old man who was one of his bookers--of course, you had to have a pretty inside track to go to his--Ed Sullivan's apartment where he lived in the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue--took me up there and here's Ed just out of bed, in his bathrobe, barefoot and coughing with a cup of coffee and--rowr! You know what I mean, early-morning problems. And here I am trying--how can you audition for one guy and a dog? And the dog was sniffing my toes.
SIMON: Must have liked what he smelled, though.
Ms. DILLER: I thought that's enough to drive me right up the wall right there, the dog.
SIMON: I have to ask you about your appearance in the film that's being made about the aristocrats.
Ms. DILLER: Oh, that. Well, it's a show biz tradition. It's a joke that comics tell each other and have since the beginning of time. Now I did not tell the joke because it would be way beyond what I consider clean. But I'm in the documentary actually, just in it. I don't really do anything.
SIMON: Not only can we not tell the joke, we can't even hint at this joke on the air.
Ms. DILLER: Well, it's an old traditional thing where a guy goes to a booking agent and describes something just beyond awful.
Ms. DILLER: And then he--the booking agent says, `Well, what's the name of the act?' And he says, `The Aristocrats.' And that's the joke.
SIMON: Yeah. There's not a Phyllis Diller-authorized version of that joke.
Ms. DILLER: Oh my, no.
SIMON: Just testing.
Ms. DILLER: Let's face it, you're talking to an 88-year-old grandma.
SIMON: I'd like to play a clip from a completely different documentary. That's the one you made about your last appearance in Las Vegas.
Ms. DILLER: Yes.
SIMON: The film is called "Goodnight, We Love You."
(Soundbite of "Goodnight, We Love You")
Ms. DILLER: My problem with cars is driving them. I'm a lousy driver. I never know whether it's 1:00 or I'm going 100. But things are a little better now. I have a phone in the car. I hit a booth. But I have a driving tip for you. Don't ever hit the lead car in a funeral procession. I have never seen that many people in such a bad mood. And when that stiff rolled out, hell, you'd have thought I killed him.
SIMON: Oh, God.
Ms. DILLER: That's good material, kid.
SIMON: Yes, it is. It sure is. So--but you always write about 75 percent of your own material.
Ms. DILLER: That's true.
SIMON: Have you ever done blue material?
Ms. DILLER: Never.
Ms. DILLER: That's a cop-out. Jerry Lewis brought his young daughter to my last show and he said it's the first time she's ever been brought to a show. He knew that my show was clean.
SIMON: Do you miss the lights, the people laughing?
Ms. DILLER: I miss the show, but that's all I miss, because, you know, you s--the new place to work now--used to be Las Vegas, now it's the Indian casinos. And it isn't the show, you got to meet the whole tribe. Then they all want their picture with you, you know, Chief Running Water and...
SIMON: I hear people going to their keyboards right now.
Ms. DILLER: They're going to knock me, aren't they?
SIMON: Well, they're going to knock me for being heard to laugh.
Ms. DILLER: Well, that's all right. We all need to laugh and if you can't see the funny side, oh shoot, what use is it?
SIMON: What makes you laugh these days?
Ms. DILLER: Anything that's funny.
Ms. DILLER: You know, anything that's funny.
SIMON: Any comedian in particular you like? Any...
Ms. DILLER: I like physical comedy. One of the funniest things--and I used to hire them when I used to produce the show--in the old days, I had an adagio dance team, man and a woman, who came out and danced so beautifully and then they had break-away clothing. And you know what? By the end, they were very nearly nude...
Ms. DILLER: ...just a few tatters and tears hanging on them. And, you know, she would go clear across the floor, that wonderful thing on the knees and then miss him and go off the stage.
SIMON: It does sound pretty funny, I must say.
Ms. DILLER: Oh, God, they were funny. But you know what? They don't have those acts anymore.
SIMON: Oh, yeah. No, they don't. Yeah.
Ms. DILLER: Well, that's what I--oh, I loved Carol Burnett and her physical comedy. Oh, Carol, I'm such a mad fan of hers.
SIMON: Yeah, I know.
Ms. DILLER: She's younger, you know. Everybody is younger than I.
SIMON: You--do you mind if I ask about the surgery you had a few years ago?
Ms. DILLER: Oh, you--talk about it. Go ahead.
SIMON: Well, it was pretty complete, wasn't it?
Ms. DILLER: It was totally complete. And I'm a whole new lady, and I love the way I look. So stand back, brother. And I haven't had anything done for, oh, 20, 25 years. Now there are ladies here in town who all look alike, and there are many who can't stop smiling. They don't dare go to a funeral. They look like the sole heir. `She must have got a lot of money.' Well, anyway...
SIMON: I'm sorry.
Ms. DILLER: ...I had everything done but I must say I look terrific for nearly 90.
SIMON: So from the advantage of being 88 years old...
Ms. DILLER: What's the advantage?
SIMON: Well, no, no, no. From the vantage of being 88...
Ms. DILLER: Oh, from the vantage of being 88, what about it?
SIMON: What does comedy do for people?
Ms. DILLER: It's good for you, obviously. Look at all the old comics who live to be a hundred. I can name two: George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, 96. What do you think keeps them alive? Laughter, comedy, the light touch, seeing the funny in.
SIMON: Ms. Diller, it's been just a great pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
Ms. DILLER: Well, it's a great pleasure talking to you, Scott.
SIMON: Phyllis Diller speaking with us from her home in Brentwood, California. And to learn more about her and the film, "Goodnight, We Love You," you can come to our Web site, npr.org.
Do you ever have a joke and no one to tell it to?
Ms. DILLER: Well, it happens all the time now that I don't work. Like I went to a cattle call, and the cow got the job. Oh, dear.
SIMON: And throughout the morning, we will continue to follow the story of the bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where at least 83 people have been killed, and continuing investigations into the bombs in London.
This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.
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