Pioneering Hollywood comedian Phyllis Diller was famous for her one-liners. She kept her jokes meticulously organized in a steel cabinet. The so-called “gag file” contains 52,000 typewritten jokes on index cards, alphabetically arranged by subject. The cards are filed into 48 drawers, with jokes spanning her nearly 50-year career as a stand-up comic. Diller understood the significance of her material from a historical perspective; thus, even before she passed away in 2012 at the age of 95, she donated her entire collection of jokes to the Smithsonian.
Diller, whose career began in the 1950s, had an onstage presence that set her apart. Known for her loud outfits, wild hair, and trademark laughter, she performed as a crazed housewife poking fun at her husband fictitious husband, whom she called Fang. He was akin to her character on stage, and Diller often featured Fang in her routine, “One of the kids asked him to spell Mississippi. He said the river or the state?” And “He thinks a Royal flush is the john at the Buckingham Palace.” She explained in a 1986 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “…this idiot that I portray on stage has to have a husband, and he’s got to be even more idiotic than I.”
Diller’s imagination led her to ad-lib and write most of her own well-structured jokes. She had the gift of delivering up to 12 punch lines in one minute. The great comedian is also remembered for her natural ability to relate to her audience. Diller got a late start in comedy, not entering showbiz until age 37, and as a mother of five. Her first husband encouraged her to take a stab at being a comedian, and they needed the money. Thankfully, the middle-aged housewife broke out of her shell and quickly found her niche in life. Diller would make her first television appearance on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and have numerous appearances on The Jack Paar Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Bob Hope’s specials, and more. NBC gave Diller her own variety show in 1968.
Unbeknownst to her at the start of her comedy career, Phyllis Diller would become a trailblazer for female comedians, breaking barriers in a male-dominated comedy industry. She would encourage comedians to work hard, not copy anyone, and do all they could to develop their own persona. She summed that idea up in one simple sentence, “When they all look alike, you got nothing.” The first lady of stand-up comedy possessed many creative passions, including playing classical piano and painting, but her true desire in life was to make people laugh. Often self-deprecating of her character on stage as part of her schtick, she enjoyed delivering witty one-liners that left people in stitches, such as, “I’m in my 14th year of a 10-day beauty plan,” and “I spent seven hours today at the beauty parlor; hell, that was just for the estimate.”