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Diller can still pack a punch line

A DVD documents her retirement from a long, colorful stand-up career, but that voice remains in demand.

December 22, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

"Haaaaahaaaaaaaahaaaa!"

Phyllis Diller may be 89 years old, but her famous laugh -- an infectious combination of a cackle and a honk -- is as strong as ever.

"I'm busy," Diller reports. "I have never been so busy in my life."

Though she retired from live performing four years ago, Diller paints every day. She's also an in-demand voice actress. Currently, Diller is the voice of the elderly Thelma on Fox's "The Family Guy."

"Any time they need an old lady now, they call me," she cracks.

"Haaaaahaaaaaaaahaaaaa!"

Diller is the subject of the 2004 documentary "Goodnight, We Love You," which came out on DVD from Image Entertainment this month. Written and directed by Gregg Barson, the film traces her 47-year career as a stand-up comedian, focusing on her farewell performance in Las Vegas in 2002.

The film captures her preparations for the concert as well as her life as a concert pianist and painter. It features fellow comedians such as Roseanne Barr, Lily Tomlin and Don Rickles discussing her career and includes Diller's complete farewell performance.

Diller retired from the stage for several reasons but mainly because it had become too taxing physically to deliver an hour's worth of one-liners at each performance. "Most people don't work until they're 85," she says. "At that age, how much energy do you have?"

Especially since, during the last few years of her stand-up career, she was working with a pacemaker. She suffered a heart attack in 1999 that nearly killed her.

"They were just trying to keep me alive," she says. "The pacemaker has given me six extra years so far. When I had my heart attack, I was 83. Obviously, that was my life span. I would have died. And here I am going to be 90 next summer. It is amazing."

Considered a pioneer in the world of female stand-up comedy, Diller was a housewife, mother of five and an advertising copywriter when she began performing at San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub in 1955.

She quickly caught on, thanks to her wildly eccentric stage persona -- complete with long cigarette holder, outrageous wigs, colorful tent-like dresses and ankle boots that made her legs look like Minnie Mouse's -- and her rapid-fire one-liners about her troublesome husband "Fang" and his harpy of a mother, and self-deprecating cracks about her own appearance and, later, her age.

She still holds the Guinness Book of World Records for doling out 12 punch lines a minute.

Diller also made headlines when she openly talked about having plastic surgery on her face.

Married three times, she was divorced twice and widowed once. Her first husband, Sherwood Diller, was the model for "Fang."

Though she performed stand-up for 47 years, the longtime Brentwood resident doesn't miss it. "There is a lot of tension" in stand-up, she says. "I used to say that, at 4 every afternoon, I would put the key in my back and start winding it. So you see what I mean -- there is a lot of tension there. You are responsible for a lot of people having a good time every night. An hour of one-liners is a lot of material."

Diller did more than her stand-up routine. She appeared on Broadway in 1970 as Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" and was in a number of films, starting with her role as famed nightclub hostess-actress Texas Guinan in Elia Kazan's 1961 classic, "Splendor in the Grass." Her best-known film work was with her mentor, Bob Hope, and included "Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!" and "Eight on a Lam." Diller also was a frequent guest on Hope's television specials and 40 years ago went on one of his USO tours to Vietnam.

"I was a big fan of his as a teenager," says Diller. "He was on the radio and did those great movies. I became a mad fan, never knowing that some day we would be buddies. He was the most generous man to work with. He wanted you to go get the laughs -- that's pretty unusual for any comic."

"Haaaaahaaaaaaaahaaaaa!"

susan.king@latimes.com

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