You'll hear a lot in the next few days about how Phyllis Diller paved the way for women in comedy, but that's not how Phyllis saw herself. "There have always been funny ladies, Steve," she told me when I interviewed her a few years ago. She was careful to use my name -- just one more example of the level of fine-tuned professionalism that was a part of everything she ever did.
Her scattered housewife character; her outrageous wigs; her perfectly-timed cackles -- it was all part of a precise act that she honed over many decades. But when I sat down with her in 2010 for a Pioneers of Television interview for PBS, she was more than willing to explain that her act wasn't always so refined. When she talked about her first national TV appearance on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, she candidly admitted, "I'm still embarrassed at how unfunny I was. My delivery was slow, I looked awful."
But she pressed onward. In 1955, she arrived in New York determined to make it in comedy. Another struggling comedian, Carol Burnett, helped Phyllis find her way in the big city. "Carol helped me find a place to live, and I'll never forget that."
Eventually Diller was booked on Ed Sullivan's show, and her career took off. Many Sullivan appearances followed, and she was invited to perform on Ed's last show. "Ed wanted to shorten the show, so he had the cue card guy remove all the setups -- all I had left was a series of punchlines," Diller explained. A comedy perfectionist, Diller refused to go on stage.
Over time, her keen comedy instincts made her a favorite of the TV variety and talk show circuit. She appeared on the highest-rated episode of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Even in her 90s, she could still quote for me her favorite ad-libs from her Carson appearances -- from 40 years earlier.
When she wasn't performing, Phyllis Diller was nothing like her persona. Joan Rivers told me, "Phyllis Diller was the most elegant woman you'll ever see. When I first met her, she was in a Christian Dior suit. I realized then that comic women can leave their personas on stage."
Even younger comedians like Margaret Cho told me how impressive Phyllis was to work with. "She was in her 90s, but still sharp and funny and knew exactly how to deliver the joke," Cho commented. "It was like a comedy clinic."
I asked Phyllis Diller more than once if she felt like a trailblazer, but each time she demurred -- always punctuating her answer with a snappy joke. But the more comics I interviewed, the more it became clear that Phyllis was an inspiration to a wide swath of performers. It wasn't her style or persona they tried to emulate, it was her drive. She broke into comedy at a time when women just didn't do such things. And she wouldn't give up, relentlessly refining her work and bettering her act.
When the "Funny Ladies" episode of PBS Pioneers of Television airs this winter, Phyllis Diller will be front and center, because no one inspired more comedians to strive for greatness.