Is there anything better than the perfect joke at the perfect time? Yes, having it delivered by an iconic, wild-haired, eccentrically-dressed female stand-up comic who opened the door for all the women who would follow.
We sat next to the lovely Phyllis Diller at a fancy-schmanzy party the other night thrown by one of her neighbors. She killed the room. But before I get to the joke, let me describe the setting.
A grand home in ritzy Brentwood, California, a lovely catered event, complete with a private perfomance by the amazing Hershey Felder, a Geffen theater darling who's a musical genius who morphs into other musical geniuses, including ones with long flowing hair.
We entered the room and saw this grand dame of a woman seated by the fireplace with a handsome man by her side. Uber-cougar? Phyllis is 93. You go girl!
I made a beeline for her -- several years ago I'd interviewed her for my first documentary, and we used her artwork for the cover. (Phyllis is not only funny, she's an accomplished artist and pianist herself.)
I sat next to her, marveled at how beautiful she looked, introduced her to my husband, then took out my iPhone to show her the poster. She was clearly delighted, and summoned her neighbors and friends to show off the artwork -- a lovely outline of a beautiful woman with the word LOVE intertwined.
I asked her how she was doing, and how her children were doing. She quietly but matter-of-factly said, "Well, several have died. That's what happens when you get to be my age." What a concept... threw us for a loop. Nothing funny there.
As her beau handed her a martini, I asked if she'd seen the latest movie about Joan Rivers or ever watched Chelsea Handler -- who could be her comedic offspring. She'd never heard of Chelsea. I suggested she look her up on YouTube, that she could see clips of her there. "But how would I see it?" Ms. Diller asked, quite perplexed.
It dawned on me, she might not know what YouTube was. I tried to explain how people uploaded videos online, but I wasn't nailing the description. "Let me try this, remember burlesque?" I offered.
"Of course!" she replied.
"It's like lots of burlesque acts that people video tape and put in one place."
"I get it" she said, "Now let's talk Joan Rivers. Loved that movie. On the floor laughing when she does that bit about back door sex and how she can get things done while doing it, like checking her phone."
She cackled her signature cackle, long, loud and inimitable. Suddenly everyone in the room knew instantly that Phyllis Diller was in the house. I could see heads turn and heard whispers, "Oh my God is that Phyllis Diller?"
Then Phyllis took her hand, pushed me back just a little with it, turned to my shy and quiet husband and loudly announced as she looked him in the eye "It's your turn, now you talk!"
He was flummoxed. I was cackling now, Phyllis Diller at 93 -- aware of everything going on around her, and picking up social cues -- basically telling me to shut up. Loved it.
When Hershey Felder stepped up to play piano for the evening, he offered Phyllis a chance to sing. She looked a bit confused, he was far away and she couldn't hear him well. Or at least that's what we thought. Had she had one martini too many? Was age getting in the way? He asked her a few more questions, like was there a song she'd like to hear? A few moments passed, an awkward silence, Hershey was not sure he should have gone down this road. Then as loud and clear as you please, Phyllis Diller finally spoke.
"Seriously," she asked, "Does it help your career to look like Jesus Christ?"
The timing couldn't have been better. She knew exactly what we were all thinking -- and slayed us with a classic one-line zinger.
A delightful moment that harkened back to all the comedy and joy this woman had provided for over 6 decades. I hope she knew by our laughter how much she's appreciated. What a talent, what a treasure. Happy Holidays, Phyllis Diller!
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