Comedian, actress, artist, and author Phyllis Diller died Monday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 95.
“She was a true pioneer,” Diller’s longtime agent Fred Wostbrock told EW. “She was the first lady of stand up comedy. She paved the way for everybody. And she conquered television, movies, Broadway, record albums, nightclubs, books, and radio. She did it all. A true pioneer.”
The housewife-turned-advertising copywriter and mother of six got her big showbiz break in 1955 at the age of 37 when the owner of San Francisco’s now-defunct Purple Onion nightclub gave her a substitute stand-up spot one night. “When I went on, the room went totally quiet and I knew that I had this magnetic thing that you had to be born with,” Diller told EW in 2005. “You can’t buy it or even learn it.” Diller’s shtick — often revolving around her pathetic fictional husband “Fang” and her less-than-gorgeous looks (“I love to go to the doctor. Where else would a man look at me and say, ‘Take off your clothes?'”) — quickly made her famous. She became a legend to generations of female comics (“To a lot of us she was better than Bob Hope,” Roseanne Barr told EW).
In the 1960s and ’70s, Diller became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and Laugh-In, though TV series meant to showcase the comic (The Phyllis Diller Show, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show) never took off. She continued to get work as she got older, appearing in movies like A Bug’s Life as well as TV shows such as Family Guy, 7th Heaven, and The Drew Carey Show. In 2005, the same year she published her autobiography (Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse), she appeared along with Sarah Silverman and Bob Saget in the humor documentary The Aristocrats, proving that even 88-year-olds can tell dirty jokes — in her case, in a typically zany wig and punctuated by her trademark cackle of a laugh.