Monday, August 20, 2012

Obituaries: Phyllis Diller

Self-depreciating comic Phyllis Diller, a pioneer in an era where women didn't do stand-up comedy, has died at the age of 95.

Diller made her television debut here of all places:

She was quite a character. In the 1960s, she was given a couple of chances at starring in her own television series, but they bombed. One of them actually made it in the Bart Andrews and Brad Dunning 1980 book, The Worst TV Shows Ever, one of my favorite books of all time. The show was The Pruitts of Southampton. It was kind of a reverse Beverly Hillbillies, but instead of poor people striking it rich, it was about rich people striking it poor. It also sported one of the greatest theme songs in television history:

Great, great theme song. They don't make 'em like this anymore. The show, needless to say, lasted only one season.

Here is what she said to the authors of the above-mentioned book:

Q: Why did Pruitts fail?

A: The cast was all wrong! Pam Freeman, who played my daughter Steffi, was a dancer, not an actress and her role was soon reduced to "Hello, Mom." Grady Sutton [who played Sturgis the butler] was getting old. Even Reggie Gardner was sick and couldn't take the hot lights. And Gypsy Rose Lee, although a dear, dear friend, couldn't do script stuff. She could talk endlessly on her own on any subject, but couldn't stay within the confines of a script.

Q: How about the basic format? Were you satisfied with it?

A: It was a one-joke show. Too full of gimmicks, coming at the end of the "gimmick" show era on TV.

Q: Couldn't you do something about changing it?

A: I worked my ass off on that show. But there was no strength from the beginning. There was never any talk of changing concepts. The last-ditch effort the producers made was too late; the show was already down the tubes. Changing the title to The Phyllis Diller Show didn't mean a damned thing! (page 136)

Diller suffered some health problems in recent years and died in her sleep this morning, surrounded by her family.

An obit:

After graduating from high school, she studied music and voice at a conservatory in Chicago but transferred to Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, where she met 24-year-old Sherwood Diller.

They eloped in 1939, she dropped out of school and they settled into married life in Bluffton.

During World War II, they moved to Ypsilanti, Mich., where Sherwood worked at a B-24 bomber plant. In 1945, he transferred to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.

Over the next 10 years, Sherwood Diller held a string of jobs while Phyllis raised their five children. But with job changes and frequent unemployment, times were tough.

To help support her family, Phyllis worked as the women's editor at a small newspaper, an advertising copy writer for an Oakland department store and later an Oakland radio station. From there, she became director of promotion and marketing at KSFO, San Francisco's top radio station.

All the while, Diller had amused friends at parties with her jokes about household drudgery. She was so good that her husband began pushing her to become a professional comic.

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