08/23/2012 12:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2012

Fearless and Funny: When Comedy Was Queen

By Michael R. Drew and Robert J. Hughes

The death of Phyllis Diller this week made front-page news. Not bad for a comic whose zenith was in the 1960s.

But Diller, who died this week at the age of 95, was that rare performer, one who spoke to the masses while savaging the status quo. One who had an impact. Sure, according to an obituary in The New York Times, she tended to hide her lithe physique behind ghastly getups in order to make a comic point, but at the same time her sharp views on womanhood, housekeeping, marriage and mores influenced successive generations of women to think independently of their bodies and the constraints of society. Or to use their bodies and social expectations as a matter for laughter.

We still need her brand of aggressive irreverence. We still live in an age when women are considered second class or worse.

Diller didn't make memorable movies. She didn't have a long-running television show. She did co-write her autobiography, Like a Lampshade In a Whorehouse: My Life In Comedy, that was precise about why certain jokes work (for example, Fang, the name she gave to her husband, ends in a hard "g," and so has a funny sound). She was also a pianist who appeared with classical ensembles.

But she was primarily a standup comic. She lived to tell jokes, to make people laugh, to upend the routine, to deliver something that made the obvious ridiculous, to change the world by changing one's perspective on it.

This doesn't seem like much -- we tend to expect major life-shifting events. But the best standup comics do something essential: They challenge preconceived notions. We all too often fall prey to presuppositions and prejudices. We tend to think in terms of absolutes. Comics like Diller took absolutes and showed how ridiculous they are by making jokes that dealt with absolutism, in a way, such as "Tranquilizers work only if you follow the advice on the bottle -- keep away from children." No false maternal piety there.

Absolutism, of course, leads to oppression. And fighting oppression is part of a comic's goal. Looking at the world with irreverence, looking at oneself with mock horror, exploring the inconsistencies in relationships and the hilarity in taking oneself seriously -- these were Diller's great targets. Here are a few of her killer jokes:

  • "A bachelor is a guy who never made the same mistake once."
  • "His finest hour lasted a minute and a half."
  • "Aim high and you won't shoot your foot off."

Diller's aim was true, and while her targets might seem to some to be dated (the overworked housewife, for example), they still resonate. The world hasn't changed enough yet. We will always need writers and performers and comics like the late Phyllis Diller.

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