My Memories of Phyllis Diller
Before a wave of texts, calls and emails informed me of Phyllis Diller's passing yesterday, there was an omen that morning. As I often do when showering, cleaning, cooking or, in this case, packing a suitcase, I play iTunes on shuffle. With 7,500 sound files, it's the only way to hear them all.
I was packing for home, leaving Denver after co-producing seven comedy improv shows to benefit Smile Train, a cleft charity. From the other room, I heard Phyllis repeat my name. "Heather. Well, that is about the prettiest name. I just love that name Heather." I smiled, recalling the memory of the recorded radio interview I'd done with her years before. She was so gracious and I was so nervous but the interview had gone well. I'd forgotten the sound file was in my iTunes library.
I'd heard the interview a dozen times since so I went and hit the forward button, taking me to the next random selection, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" by The Smiths.
Some weekday afternoon, around the turn of this century, I found myself on a 24th-floor conference room in downtown San Francisco. The bay view was indescribably beautiful, though the meeting was excruciatingly dull. Instead of taking notes, as expected, I instead made a list of things to do prior to death -- the term "bucket list" had not yet become common. Somewhere on there, in between "Write a book" and "Gallop a horse across the Golden Gate Bridge" was "Meet Phyllis Diller."
To me, Phyllis was the ultimate comedy pioneer, someone I had long admired not just for her steady, successful career but for the way she approached the craft, with razor-sharp precision. And let's face it, comedy has long been a world dominated by men. Today, less so. (Yay!)
My life has always included a comedic compartment, whether as a performer (some LA stand-up but mostly improv), a humor writer, or a rabidly appreciative audience member. I grew up memorizing the albums of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Robin Williams. In fact, I still collect classic comedy LPs, and in a grand gift from the Universe, got to embrace Bob Newhart on a plane with his express permission. I am a true comedy nerd. (Come October, I'm driving six hours to see Louis C.K. in Minneapolis -- insane.)
Credit Image: © Allan S. Adler-Ipol, Inc/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com
Around the time of the fateful Boring Meeting, I was occasionally writing for the still-new BUST magazine, and in a fit of confidence, pitched them a profile of Phyllis. The editor, Debbie Stoller (who is rad), flipped over the idea and insisted we include a photo shoot as well. Beyond Phyllis's famous over-the-top laugh ("I came out of the womb like that," she'd told me), the bulk of her act was based on her so-called ungainly looks. This, I discovered, was a deliberate strategy to appear more vulnerable, non-sexual, and more clownish -- a key to her self-deprecating act. ("The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny," tweeted Joan Rivers yesterday.)
And so, writing about Phyllis wasn't enough; she must be photographed too. We agreed to meet ... at her house.
In one long deafening squeal, I packed for LA, grabbed my vintage copy of her 1961 live album, "Laughs" for an autograph, and prepared to meet my idol, which can be a tricky thing. What if the object of one's admiration is not what's imagined? What if they are rude? Uncaring? Indifferent? Worst of all, what if she wasn't funny? I had been disappointed by false celebrity before and was wary. Sure, she was charming on the phone for 20 minutes but hell, even I can do that.