Biography of Phyllis Diller

First Successful Female Stand-Up Comic

Phyllis Diller 1967
Phyllis Diller 1967. Martin Mills/Getty Images

Known for being the first woman to make a successful career of stand-up comedy, Phyllis Diller was known for her self-deprecating jokes. She was also mocked for her distinctive comedic voice. 

Dates: July 17, 1917 – August 20, 2012

Also known as: Phyllis Ada Driver Diller, Illya Dillya

Background

Phyllis Diller was born in 1917 in Ohio. Her mother, Frances Ada Romshe Driver, was 38 years old when Phyllis was born, and her father, Perry Driver, was 55 years old.

She was an only child. Her father was a sales executive for an insurance company.

She studied piano and enjoyed performing and, at seventeen, she set off for Chicago’s Sherwood Conservatory of Music, where she felt lonely. She quickly returned to Ohio to study humanities at Bluffton College. There she met Sherwood Diller, a fellow student, and they married in 1939. Phyllis Diller left college to take care of their son, Peter, and the home.

During World War II the Dillers moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and then after the war to California, near San Francisco. Sherwood Diller had a hard time holding a job, and Phyllis Diller kept having children, for a total of six by 1950, though one died in infancy. 

Making People Laugh

Phyllis Diller wrote at home to help with the family finances. She discovered in her work connections that she could make people laugh. At 37 years old, she began practicing comedy at hospitals and private parties, and in 1955, performed at the Purple Onion in San Francisco.

  She stayed there for almost two years.

Diller developed a comedy routine about domestic life and marriage, featuring a fictional husband, Fang. She mocked her personal appearance and took to wearing ridiculous loose clothes and a wig. She portrayed a rather maniacal housewife, complete with her signature grating laugh.

She wrote her own material. She was also proud to keep her language "clean" in contrast to many other stand-up comedians.

Television and Other Media

She began appearing on television, broadening her audience. Her 1959 appearance on the introduced her to a national audience. Bob Hope adopted her to appear in specials and films. She recorded her comedy and also wrote books.

In the 1960s she starred in a comedy show, The Phyllis Diller Show, though it only lasted for 30 episodes. She appeared on television on variety shows, and got her own variety show in 1968, though this too folded quickly. She also appeared as a guest on situation comedies, game shows, and other programs in addition to her live performances in clubs across the country. In the mid-1960s, she divorced her first husband, Sherwood Diller, and married the actor Warde Donovan, though she continued to use her fictional husband's persona in her act. She and Donovan divorced in the 1970s.

In 1970, she played the title role in Hello Dolly! on Broadway. From 1971 until 1982, she appeared as a piano soloist with symphony orchestras. For these appearances, she used the obvious pseudonym, Illya Dillya.

Later Years

She continued her many appearances in the 1980s and 1990s and did voiceovers for animated characters for several shows.

She did not marry again, but from 1985 until he died in 1995, her partner was Robert P. Hastings, a lawyer.

In her later years, she underwent cosmetic surgery, which also became a subject for her own comedy routines. Her insecurity about her looks, always featured in her routine, became focused on using plastic surgery to make herself more conventionally attractive.

Her health began to fail in the 1990s. Phyllis Diller’s final performance, which followed a heart attack, was in 2002 in Las Vegas. In 2005 she published Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy.

Her last public appearance was on a panel on CNN in 2011. She died at 95 in August 2012, in Los Angeles.

Other Books:

  • Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints, introduction by Bob Hope, 1966.
  • Phyllis Diller's Marriage Manual, 1967.
  • The Complete Mother, 1969.
  • The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them: Can Sex Keep You Young? And Other Silly Questions, 1981.

Awards Include:

  • USO Liberty Bell Award, 1978
  • Minutemen Award from U.S. Treasury Department
  • Distinguished Service Citation from the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars
  • Golden Apple Award from Hollywood Women's Press Club
  • TV Radio Mirror Award
  • San Francisco Cabaret Gold Award, 1984
  • Franklin B. Ashley Award from American Academy of Cosmetic Surgeons, 1986
  • American Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1992
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Phyllis Diller." ThoughtCo, Dec. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/phyllis-diller-biography-4129729. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, December 4). Biography of Phyllis Diller. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/phyllis-diller-biography-4129729 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Phyllis Diller." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/phyllis-diller-biography-4129729 (accessed December 13, 2017).