Phyllis Diller

Active - 1934 - 2011  |   Born - Jul 17, 1917 in Lima, Ohio, United States  |   Died - Aug 20, 2012   |   Genres - Comedy, Children's/Family

Share on

Biography by Hal Erickson

Long before Roseanne Barr's "domestic goddess," Phyllis Diller parlayed her life as a housewife into a profitable stand-up comedy career. The daughter of an insurance man, Phyllis Driver had hopes of becoming a concert pianist, and to that end attended Chicago's Sherwood Music Conservatory. Her zany behavior while attending Northwestern University and her 1939 elopement with her first husband Sherwood Diller put a temporary end to her musical career. Several years and many children later, a bored Diller went to work for the advertising department of a California department store, then got a writing job at an Oakland radio station. A knack for making people laugh at church and club functions prompted Diller (with her husband's encouragement) to set her sights on a comedy career. She studied acting and scrutinized the techniques of her favorite male comedians, finally making her nightclub debut in 1955 at San Francisco's Purple Onion, a progressive nightclub which presaged the "comedy workshops" of today. Eighty-nine additional weeks at the Purple Onion enabled Diller to hone her skills to perfection; her first comedy record album appeared in 1959, with numerous TV and stage appearances quickly following suit. Diller developed an outrageous comedy persona, complete with grotesque wigs, garish costumes and her trademarked cackling laugh. Though always a favorite with live audiences, Diller was never quite able to sustain her appeal on film: her 1966 TV series The Pruitts of Southhampton was unsuccessful, as was her only starring feature film, Did You Hear the One About the Travelling Saleslady? (1968). She fared somewhat better as a supporting actress in several Bob Hope comedy films of the late 1960s (Hope was a longtime Diller fan). In later years, Diller periodically altered her public personality, "improving" her plain but distinctive facial features with plastic surgery, concentrating more time on piano concerts and less on stand-up comedy and confining her TV appearances to Home Shopping programs and "psychic hotline" infotainment half-hours. Perhaps Phyllis Diller's "funny hausfrau" throne was eventually usurped by younger talents, but one must not forget that Diller was the one who stuck her neck out first, blazing the trail for the many Roseannes and Brett Butlers who followed.

Her film work was sporadic but highlights include The Adding Machine and Did You Hear The One About the Traveling Salesman? as well as the documentaries Wisecracks and The Aristocrats, and the animated film A Bug's Life. Diller died in 2012 at the age of 95.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography


  • Worked as an advertising copywriter for San Francisco's KGO-TV. At the age of 37, made a successful stand-up debut at the Purple Onion Comedy Club in San Francisco. Her routines famously included stories about a fictional husband named Fang. After numerous television appearances, made her big-screen debut in 1961's Splendor in the Grass. An accomplished concert pianist, she performed with over 100 symphony orchestras under the pseudonym Dame Illya Dillya. Received an American Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992. Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993. Has had many plastic surgeries since the 1980s; received the first annual Franklin Ashley Award from the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery for her openness about the procedures.