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Critic's Notebook: Phyllis Diller was completely and inarguably herself

Behind Phyllis Diller's wacky look was self-assured woman who clearly owned the joint. And with that attitude, she embodied women's liberation.

August 20, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Comedian Phyllis Diller gets a lift from Buddy Hackett in 1985.
Comedian Phyllis Diller gets a lift from Buddy Hackett in 1985. (Marty Lederhandler, Associated…)

I love Phyllis Diller, and I refuse to change the tense of that emotion with her passing because the love is most certainly still alive.

I love Phyllis Diller because she was hilarious, because she did stand-up before it seemed women were legally allowed to do stand-up and because well into old age she could still rock a mini-dress.

But most of all, I love Phyllis Diller because she was the first woman I ever saw who clearly and joyfully and consistently simply did not give a damn.

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About what men thought, about what women thought, about what anyone thought.

It didn't matter if she was standing her ground with Bob Hope, mixing it up with Merv, holding down a Hollywood Square or joining Orson Welles, Don Rickles and Sammy Davis Jr. at Dean Martin's roasts of people like George Burns, Betty White and Ronald Reagan (whom she nailed by zinging Nancy, in retrospect perhaps the single bravest comedic moment in history).

She inevitably looked like a Barbie doll left out in the backyard during a rainstorm followed by a drought, sounded like she had consumed a pack of Camels and six highballs for breakfast, and she owned the joint.

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In the late '60s and early '70s, there were a lot of women trying to own the joint, women who talked a good game about not giving a damn. Many of these women were wise and witty, outraged, outrageous and very important. But when you came right down to it, Gloria Steinem always looked slim and fabulous, and even Bella Abzug had her hats.

Phyllis Diller, on the other hand, didn't try to pretend that looks didn't matter while secretly straightening her hair. She didn't try to look her best and hope her talent would carry her through. She took the whole Cosmo Girl package, turned it inside out and covered it in spray paint and glitter glue.

The light-socket hair and kabuki makeup, the sequins and the metallic gloves, even the cigarette holder were all just props. What made Diller a walking, talking embodiment of liberation lived south of the wig hat, that molten voice and utterly unfeminine laugh, the wide-open lipsticked mouth, the rolling eyes, the loose-limbed gait all screamed of a woman utterly comfortable with who she was.

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Never mind that much of her humor hit middle octave notes of "I'm so fat, I'm so ugly, my husband doesn't want to have sex with me." The way she delivered the lines made it clear that although she was making a joke about herself, she was not making a joke of herself. In fact, the joke was the joke — it was funny to see her fretting about her looks, or her cooking, or her marriage, because it was so clear that she did not care, and neither, by the way, should you.

Her humor may have been self-deprecating, but it was never self-hating. Unlike other comedians who mine the negative — Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, even Sarah Silverman — Phyllis Diller clearly loved being Phyllis Diller. Rivers, who followed the trail Diller blazed and widened it considerably, had a similar sense of comedy; both women regularly exploited their appearances for laughs and both were plain-spoken about their extensive plastic surgery.

The differences were there too. Diller was wacky, while Rivers aimed for glamour.

Yet where Rivers played as neurotic and insecure, Diller projected a woman utterly self-assured. She was loud, brash, absurd and impossible to ignore, four things that were revolutionary for a woman at the time. For a woman of any time. The fact that she didn't appear to take herself very seriously made what she was doing seem even more serious — like Lucille Ball, she was entirely her own creation. But while Ball established herself as part of a couple, albeit the alpha member, Diller did it on her own — "Fang," her longtime "husband," was a piece of fiction; she didn't use her real life as fodder for her act. Phyllis Diller was a self-made woman, created by her own self from scratch.

It's easy enough to draw a line from Diller to a nursery full of modern comedians, and not all of them female. Tina Fey's Liz Lemon owes so much to Diller it's a wonder that"30 Rock" didn't have her on the show (as sister to Elaine Stritch's Colleen, how was this opportunity missed?) and Louis C.K. has a decided Dillerian streak of knowing and cheerful self-abasement.

But it wasn't just the comedy that made Phyllis Diller an icon. It was her ability to achieve grace through outrageousness. She was Cruella de Vil crossed with Auntie Mame, she was Fanny Brice as rendered by Andy Warhol. Year after year after year, she walked out onto 100 stages, in front of a million cameras, looking like pop culture's crazy great aunt, refusing to age, refusing to change, the personal as political in a feathered mini-dress and pink fright wig.

Year after year after year, a woman completely and inarguably herself. I think of Phyllis Diller, of what she did and how long she did it and the only truly appropriate reaction is a heartfelt and very appreciative "damn."

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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