Phyllis Diller

Tuesday August 21st, 2012 – Fox Lake, IL

   Any time words like ‘icon’, ‘legend’ or ‘star’ are used in the same sentence with ‘comedian’, it captures my attention as it happens so infrequently. Phyllis Diller was all of the above, and sadly she passed away yesterday at the age of 95. If there ever was a comedy success story, she was it.

It’s not as if the news itself was a total shocker to anybody. Ninety five years is an outstanding run for anyone. She brought much needed laughter to tens of millions over several generations of American history in 20th Century, and her place of exalted prominence was sealed decades ago.

I’m not sure if the average person realizes just how remarkable her career actually was. She put it all on the line, and overcame tremendous odds to achieve success in a field that was dominated by men. She not only carved out a place for herself, but paved the way for other women as well.

She didn’t start in comedy until she was 37, and had five kids and a shaky marriage. Comedy is hard enough under ‘normal’ circumstances, even though they rarely if ever exist. Most stories of how comedians start are more similar to mine, with the performer beginning much earlier in life.

People like Milton Berle and Charlie Chaplin were noted child performers, and Woody Allen’s career started as a writer of jokes when he was a teenager. Rodney Dangerfield started out young as well, even though he took a break for quite a few years to sell siding while he raised a family.

Phyllis Diller’s story was completely different, and very inspirational. She had a dream and put everything she had into it and succeeded. She frequently cited a book by an author named Claude M. Bristol called ‘The Magic Of Believing’ as the root of her success, and would pass out copies.

One of those who received a copy was my writing mentor Gene Perret. Gene is another icon to many in the comedy business, as he has authored several books on comedy writing that show the nuts and bolts techniques of structuring jokes. I first read one of his books called “How To Write And Sell Your Sense Of Humor” before I ever stepped on a stage, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

I met Gene’s daughter Linda when I was living in Los Angeles, and ended up meeting Gene at an annual comedy conference they put on called “The Round Table”. Gene has always been very supportive of all comedians, and he started by writing for Phyllis Diller in the ‘60s. She was the one who inspired and encouraged him to move to Hollywood, and he freely gives her the credit.

To his own credit, Gene took the initiative and actually did it. He loaded up his family and did what 99% of people never do – he took ACTION. Phyllis bought jokes from him on a consistent basis, and then he ended up meeting Bob Hope and he never looked back. He was the head writer for Bob for more than twenty years, but he never lost contact with Phyllis. It’s a fantastic story.

I found a link to some video interviews with Phyllis that ooze passion. Anyone who isn’t a fan after watching these is dead. Gene Perret’s website is a place to go for anybody who wants to learn more about comedy writing.


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