Dead, Phyllis Ada Driver better known as Phyllis Diller on August 20, 2012, she was an American stand-up comedian, actress, singer, dancer, and voice artist, best known for her eccentric stage persona, her self-deprecating humor, her wild hair and clothes, and her exaggerated, cackling laugh.
Born in Lima, Ohio on July 17, 1917, the only child of Perry Marcus Driver an insurance agent, and Frances Ada, she had German and Irish ancestry (the surname “Driver” had been changed from “Treiber” several generations earlier).
She was raised Methodist. Although she made her career in comedy, Diller had studied the piano for many years.
She decided against a career in music after hearing her teachers and mentors play with much more skill than she thought that she would be able to achieve.
She still played in her private life, however, and owned a custom-made harpsichord.
Diller began her career working at KROW radio in Oakland, California in 1952. In November of that year, she began filming a television show titled Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker.
The 15-minute series was a Bay Area Radio-Television production, directed for television by ABC’s Jim Baker.
In the mid-1950s, while residing in the East Bay city of Alameda, California, Diller was employed at KSFO radio in San Francisco.
Bill Anderson wrote and produced a television show at KGO-TV called Pop Club, which was hosted by Don Sherwood.
Pop Club was a live half-hour show that combined playing records with “experts” rating them, and dancing girls encouraging audience participation.
Diller first appeared as a stand-up at The Purple Onion in San Francisco on March 7, 1955, and remained there for 87 straight weeks.
She appeared on Del Courtney’s Showcase on KPIX-TV on November 3, 1956.
In the mid-1950s, she made appearances on The Jack Paar Show and was a contestant on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life.
After moving to Webster Groves, Missouri, near St. Louis, in 1961, Diller honed her act in St. Louis clubs, such as Gaslight Square’s Crystal Palace.
By the mid 1960s, St. Louis was home to her.
Throughout the 1960s, audiences embraced her bold and brazen quirkiness.
Chumming up with the best of Hollywood’s comedy talent, Diller formed a tight and lasting relationship with Bob Hope, appearing in scores of his television specials and co-starring in three of his broad 1960s comedy films (Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966), Eight on the Lam (1967) and The Private Navy of Sgt.
O’Farrell (1968). Diller also joined Hope in Vietnam in 1966 with his USO troupe.
She meshed perfectly with the far-out popular cult figures of her era (remember Tiny Tim?) and found the best writers to help her with her material — Joan Rivers, herself, before she became big, wrote for the wisecracking comedienne.
A special guest on hordes of television series and comedy specials and, especially on such riotfests as Laugh-In (1977) and the Dean Martin celebrity series of roasts, she became a celebrity on the game show circuit as well, milking laughs on such established shows as The Hollywood Squares (1965) and The Gong Show (1976).
She also had best-selling comedy records to her credit and humorous anecdotes to pitch that made it to the bookstore shelves, such as “Phyllis Diller Tells All About Fang”.
However, stand-up remained her first love.
Perhaps way too broad or too much of a schtick artist to sustain her own television series, she did attempt to find a suitable vehicle but came up short.
The Phyllis Diller Show (1966) had Phyllis pretty much pulling out all the stops (fright wig, garish outfits and all) as a wacky widow invariably scheming to keep up a wealthy front despite being heavily in debt.
She had the reliably droll Reginald Gardiner and cranky Charles Lane as foils and even Gypsy Rose Lee was in there pitching, but the show didn’t jell.