Working for Phyllis those few short weeks — we were cancelled three days after I arrived — was my first experience working for and with a celebrity. She was extraordinarily nice and extraordinarily open. (Unfortunately, she gave me the wrong impression about celebrities.)
When she found out that I wanted to be an entertainer, she was beyond generous in her mentoring. She told me many things about performing during those weeks, things that I have never forgotten. If you wanted to be successful as a stand-up, she told me, you had to have a different, unique point of view. “Figure out who you are, what makes you stand out from the others,” she counseled. “The minute you know that, your comedy will fall into place. You will be able to make people laugh at things that others can’t.”
When Phyllis died on Monday, we lost a woman who paved the way not only for me but for just about all other female comedians. She did this by building the first bridge between old ideas and new ones about what a female comedian should be. In the era when Phyllis started performing, all female comedians had to look funny to be considered funny. If you were pretty, you were automatically a singer. And all the ladies that came before her fitted into this mold. Fanny Brice was cross-eyed, Totie Fields heavy, Jean Carroll — a major schlep. Women were just not allowed to be funny and beautiful.
Although in her private life Phyllis was tall, good-looking and extremely chic, she sacrificed this for her art. She picked a look that was expected and dressed in the ridiculous boots, outrageous dresses and semi-frightening wigs that became her signature.
But what was not expected from Phyllis — and what broke the rules — was what this clownish woman did when she came on stage. She simply walked out, stood in front of a microphone and talked for an hour. There was no music, no songs, no juggling, no silly dances — none of the things that female comedians were expected to do in their acts. Phyllis just stood there like a man and said smart, funny things. Today, the idea of a woman coming out on stage and simply talking is absolutely accepted. But in those days, it was shocking.
Just as people say Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels, Phyllis Diller was the first female comedian to do everything that Jack Benny and Henny Youngman did, only she did it faster and smarter and maybe even funnier.