Monday, July 17, 2017

Joke of the Day (Phyllis Diller, on Her Cooking Skills)

“In my hands food is a weapon. I can louse up cornflakes. I serve it on the rocks."—Stand-up comic Phyllis Diller quoted in Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (2003)

Deriding her lack of culinary skills—or her wider inability at running a household—was hardly the only self-deprecating statement from Phyllis Diller, born Phyllis Ada Driver on this day 100 years ago in Lima, Ohio. Even more self-lacerating were her remarks about her looks. At a certain point, even she became sensitive about them, undergoing plastic surgery—even becoming one of the first celebrities to openly admit having done so.

Three decades ago, I made a cutting remark about Diller’s homeliness to a work colleague. “But you know what? She’s supposed to be one of the nicest people in show business,” he responded. 

Subsequently, I found out he was right—I have never, in fact, heard of anyone in the business having a bad word about her—remarkable for an industry with more than the usual number of neurotics, egotists and cheats. That realization made me reconsider my attitude about her career—and, ultimately, about “looksism” as a standard for judging anybody.

Another point I didn’t realize at the time: Before Ellen DeGeneres, even before Joan Rivers, Diller pioneered stand-up comedy for women. When she started out in the mid-1950s, she said in a 1986 interview on Terry Gross’ NPR show Fresh Air, “There were no female comics around. I was it. I didn't know that. But I had no precedent.”

It was desperation—and the inner toughness not to let anything stand in her way—that drove her in the first place to such an extremity. With five kids and a (first) husband who drank and couldn’t get a job, forced to live in a dismal housing project, she could have been the kind of suburban housewife Betty Friedan had in mind in The Feminine Mystique.

 Instead, at age 37, she took the greatest risk of her career, quitting her copywriter job in the Bay Area and, amid a decade of barely smothered, inarticulate unrest, caused a small earthquake with her wisecracks: “I was saying all the things women were thinking but not saying,” she remembered years later. At the same time, she did so without the spectacular raunch becoming increasingly common among males on the stand-up circuit.

Diller died five years ago this August, at age 95. I like to think she had the last laugh on a world that counted her out when she was a struggling middle-aged mom. Her life offers two good lessons, I think: Don't stop laughing, and don't give up.

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