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Spinning Pain into Laughter: Phyllis Diller Reviews Her Career in New Autobio
2005-06-15

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by Jay Blotcher

While gay men adore their preening, misbehaving divas, they also maintain a fierce affection for the underdog: the sassy misfit who transforms pain into song—or bellylaughs. Before Roseanne Barr and Margaret Cho, there was Phyllis Diller. An ugly duckling among glamourpusses, Diller was a pioneer of comic stand-up in an era when most women were stuck in the kitchen. Diller first found favor with gay male audiences who recognized a fellow iconoclast.

In her new autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy ( Tarcher/Penguin ) , Diller, now 87, looks back on a half-century of show business with equal parts nostalgia and brassy candor. Throughout the narrative, the comedienne acknowledges the gay men who either managed her, looked after her or made her career.

'Gay men have the most wonderful sense of humor,' said Diller, speaking on the telephone from her Brentwood Park, Los Angeles home on a recent afternoon. 'And they are willing to laugh. They appeal to me and I appeal to them.' She caps the comment with her signature cackle, which fills the phone receiver

A life of comedy seemed unlikely at first for the St. Louis native. It was the mid-1950s and stand-up comedy was an old boys club. Diller was a beleaguered housewife from Alameda with five children and an eccentric husband named Sherwood. 'Sherry' was a perennial dreamer with grandiose airs and dead-end schemes. So Diller affected a self-deprecating sense of humor to cope with a painful home life. It helped her write fizzy ad copy for radio and newspapers. Friends soon suggested she channel her wordplay into a stage act. So, at age 37, Diller began knocking on doors in North Beach, the bohemian oasis of San Francisco then humming with jazz clubs, strip joints, beatnik hangouts and gay bars. Diller made her debut at The Purple Onion, a dank basement club with a large gay clientele. When she came onstage in second-hand evening clothes, accented by a ratty fur piece and a cigarette in an elegant holder, gays immediately adored her.

Diller returned the affection. While her rapid-fire one-liners skewered her gawky looks and her unhappy domestic life, she never stooped to homophobic humor—although gays were an easy mark in the McCarthy era.

'No, no, no, no,' she said. 'In fact, Joan Rivers and I both absolutely insist that we never would have got started without our gay audience. They were the first to actually accept us as funny women.'

Diller soon developed a strong following. Her first collaborator was a local character named Lloyd Clark, whom Diller describes in the book as 'suave, dark-haired, pencil thin, and overtly gay.' At $5 per hour, Clark was hired to help Diller develop jokes for her act, and book her in local clubs. Clark was a natty dresser and a fussbudget. His wife, an obese blonde, spoiled him, seemingly oblivious to his true sexuality. Diller never judged Clark, whose domestic arrangement was common in that era.

Diller's next gay ally was Barrymore Drew. A tall, elegant gentleman who preferred sandals in any weather, Drew was part owner of The Purple Onion. In audition to manning the light and sound boards, he also selected talent. Drew was enchanted by Diller's repartee, her ill-fitting evening dress and rhinestone high heels. He hired her for a punishing but high-profile schedule of six nights a week, where she shared the stage with singers, other comedians and an aspiring dancer-actress named Maya Angelou. Gay audiences continued to come, as did crowds in tourist buses.

But Diller was making only $60 a week, not enough to support five children and a sporadically employed husband with recurring black moods. ( These agonies would provide Diller with her best comedy bits; she began riffing onstage about a dumb-as-a-hammer, skinflint husband she called Fang. ) Drew became Diller's mother hen, grooming her career, suggesting new routines and even allowing her to stay on his Sausalito houseboat. The pair was inseparable; Diller would even accompany Drew as he cruised San Francisco's Fillmore district for men of color.

'Oh, my precious Barrymore!' Diller said. 'Well, here's a gay man who's just totally responsible for my first five years. Her took care of me as a father would.'

Other gay men are remembered with great affection. One is Rod McKuen, the Stanyan Street poet-songwriter whom Diller met in the early 1950s, when she was a copywriter at radio station KROW. McKuen was a disc jockey.

'He was an 18-year-old child and here I was a 33-year-old woman, a housewife,' she said. 'We absolutely bonded instantly because, you know, talent and creativity. He was a musician and a poet and a scholar. And I considered myself the same.' The friendship has lasted decades; just two years ago, McKuen and Diller took a cruiseship to the south of France.

Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse maintains a disarming level of honesty. As Diller explains in the book's foreword: 'If you smell, you smell'. Doublecrossing people she meets on the way up—managers, fellow comics, greedy relatives—are slapped down with mercilesslly funny assessments. Nor does Diller spare herself; she acknowledges the refusal to face one daughter's mental retardation, and describes the tenuous relationships she now has with her other children.

Diller also admits a myopia regarding her choice of husbands. After Sherry, there was Warde Donovan. They met in the summer of 1962 during a Chicago revival of Wonderful Town. Donovan had a seductive baritone. He was tall, robust, handsome. However, his career in musical theater was on the slide, while Diller's star was ascending; she had a cameo in the 1960 movie Splendor in the Grass and a steady guest spot on Jack Paar's TV show. Her stage act was being booked in major clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Miami—to the delight of more gay audiences who embraced her. More films, television series and a tour of Vietnam with Bob Hope lay ahead.

Diller and Donovan began to carry on energetically, but discreetly—both were married. When Donovan's wife died in 1965, Diller dropkicked Sherry and married her new lover. They found a 22-room mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, where neighbors included Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Cloris Leachman and Judy Garland.

Warde Donovan was everything that Sherry was not: attentive, ambitious and sexually satisfying. But Donovan was also bisexual, a reality Diller tried hard to ignore. During a trip to Australia, Donovan snuck away for a tryst with their limousine driver. When he returned to the hotel, Diller writes in her book, he had 'the smell of semen on his breath.' The marriage was soon over.

Self-pity never appealed to Diller. Friendships and an exhausting work schedule sustained her. In her early 80s, Diller voiced the Queen in the feature cartoon A Bug's Life and had a recurring role on CBS's daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful. ( A number of well-publicized facelifts have kept the years at bay. ) After a heart attack in 1999, she required a pacemaker but still returned to the stage.

When Diller decided to formally retire in 2002 at age 84, she went out the old-school way with a farewell concert at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Comedy royalty filled the seats, including Lily Tomlin, Rich Little, David Brenner, Don Rickles, Roseanne, Ruth Buzzi and Jo Anne Worley. The event is captured on video in a labor of love by Gregg Barson called Goodnight, We Love You.

For her swansong, Diller's flair for self-mockery remains strong. Calling herself 'The Madonna of the Geritol Set' Diller shamelessly airs out ancient gags. But she also dips into topical issues: 'I went to a gay wedding and I caught the jockstrap,' she said, explaining, 'In San Francisco, a mixed marriage is a man and woman.'

Goodnight We Love You has been screening at film festivals around the country, most recently the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

Instead of stand-up, Diller now busies herself as a painter. Her medium? 'Acrylic, water and spit,' she replies, cackling again. At the insistence of friends, Diller holds a home exhibition of her Matisse-style tableaus four times a year.

Diller stays busy playing gin or dining out with a circle of intimates, including former Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife; Dolores Hope, Bob's widow; and June Haver, the widow of Fred MacMurray. ( Diller also belongs to the widow's club; her third, and happiest, marriage to lawyer Bob Hastings ended with his 1996 death. ) The fan mail still arrives, and Diller obliges each correspondent with a signed 8x10 glossy. Recounting her daily activities, Diller pauses. 'Jesus, I'm busy.' She must end the interview, she apologizes, to keep an appointment. 'When you're pushing 90, you spend about two days a week with some damned doctor.' ( She'll be 88 in July. )

Reflecting on eight decades for her memoirs, Diller admitted, was occasionally painful. But there was illumination, as well. Diller finally realized that a simple coping mechanism—self-ridicule and stinging one-liners—became a comedy routine. It brought her fame, as well as the love she craved.

'It took me to be over 80 years old—beyond that age—to realize that my act was actually very therapeutic.'

Jay Blotcher's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Advocate and in six queer anthologies, including the upcoming Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We're Not edited by Jim Tushinksi and Jim Van Buskirk ( Harrington Park Press, 2006 ) . His writings and artwork can be found at www.jayblotcher.com .


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