Phyllis Diller, whose sassy, screeching, rapid-fire stand-up comedy helped open the door for two generations of funny women, died on Monday at her home in Brentwood, Calif. She was 95.
Her agent, Fred Wostbrock, confirmed her death.
Ms. Diller, who became famous for telling jokes that mocked her odd looks, her aversion to housekeeping and a husband she called Fang, was far from the first woman to do stand-up comedy. But she was one of the most influential. There were precious few women before her, if any, who could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or overpower an audience with such an outrageous personality.
One chestnut: “I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they’d boo.”
Another: “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’ ”
Ms. Diller, a 37-year-old homemaker when she took up comedy, mined her domestic life for material, assuring audiences that she fed Fang and her kids garbage soup and buried her ironing in the backyard. She exuded an image that was part Wicked Witch of the West (a role she actually played in a St. Louis stage production of “The Wizard of Oz”) and part clown.
In her many television appearances she would typically sashay on stage wearing stiff, outsize, hideous metallic dresses (she did this, she said, so she could lie to her audiences about the state of her body, which was really trim and shapely), high-heeled shoes or boots studded with rhinestones, and a bejeweled collar better suited to a junkyard dog or a fur scarf she claimed was made from an animal she had trapped under the sink. Slinking along on skinny legs, her feet invariably pointed outward, penguin-style, she originally carried a long bejeweled cigarette holder that held a make-believe cigarette from which she continually flicked imaginary ashes. (Ms. Diller, who did not smoke, later discarded the cigarette holder.)
Her hair was the blond flyaway variety, sometimes looking as if it was exploding from her scalp; her eyes were large and ferocious, her nose thin and overlong (she ultimately tamed it through plastic surgery). And then there was that unforgettable, ear-shattering voice, which would frequently explode into a sinister cackle that seemed perfectly matched to her image as the ultimate domestic demon.
Among Ms. Diller’s few female predecessors was Jean Carroll, sometimes called “the female Milton Berle,” who made numerous appearances in nightclubs and on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, where she mined her marriage and family for laughs. There were others: Minnie Pearl got laughs as an outrageous Southern spinster, Moms Mabley as a raunchily outspoken black philosopher.
But Ms. Diller’s hard-hitting approach to one-liners — inspired by Bob Hope, who became an early champion — was something new for a woman. Her success proved that female comedians could be as aggressive or unconventional as their male counterparts, and leave an audience just as devastated. She cleared the way for the likes of Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and numerous others.
Although Ms. Diller used writers to help create her act, she estimated that she wrote 75 percent of the jokes herself. Her approach to humor was methodical. “My material was geared toward everyone of all ages and from different backgrounds, and I wanted to hit them right in the middle,” she explained in her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy” (Tarcher, 2005), written with Richard Buskin. “I didn’t want giggles — I could get those with my looks — I wanted boffs, and I wanted people to get the joke at the same moment and laugh together. That way I could leave everything to my timing.”
She liked jokes that piled on the laughs in rapid succession. A favorite of hers was this one: “I realized on our first wedding anniversary that our marriage was in trouble. Fang gave me luggage. It was packed. My mother damn near suffocated!”
Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio, the daughter of Perry Driver, an insurance executive, and the former Frances Ada Romshe. As a child she developed a strong interest in classical music, became accomplished on the piano and other instruments and sang well; by the time she got to high school, she also had an interest in writing and dramatics. In 1935, her last year at Central High School, she was voted the school’s most talented student.
After briefly attending the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago, she entered Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, near Lima, with thoughts of becoming a music teacher. She met Sherwood Anderson Diller in her senior year in college, and they were married in 1939.
She never taught music. The Dillers moved to California, where he was an inspector at a Navy air station and later held various other jobs — none, by Ms. Diller’s account, for very long. They struggled financially, even with Ms. Diller working too. She wrote a shopping column for a newspaper in San Leandro and advertising copy for a department store in Oakland, then moved on to a job as a copywriter, continuity writer and publicist for a radio station in Oakland before joining a San Francisco station as director of promotion and merchandising.
Richard Severo and Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.