How Phyllis Diller Became a Pioneer for Female Comedians

Phyllis Diller, ca. late 1960s
Mario Casilli/TV Guide/Courtesy Everett Collection

A big part of Roseanne Barr’s comedy has been her famously over-the-top cackle. But some may not be aware of how much of that laugh — and other aspects of Barr’s comedy, including the sardonic “Domestic Goddess” persona of her standup act — was inspired by pioneering comedian Phyllis Diller.

Diller’s influence on comedians like Barr has not only been through the style, delivery and content of her humor, but also in the fact that in the 1950s she had the genius and courage to literally stand up and prove women can be funny in a profession even more male-dominated at that time than it still is.

Born Phyllis Ada Driver, Diller had studied piano but until her mid 30s was primarily a housewife and mother to the children she had with first husband Sherwood Diller.

In 1952, after working in radio around San Francisco, Diller began more widely displaying her talent for making people laugh in local TV segments called Phyllis Dillis, The Homely Friendmaker. Donning a housecoat, she offered humorous “advice” to homemakers in an early example of her eventually famous use of wardrobe to adopt a comedic alter ego.

Diller made her standup comedy debut at San Francisco’s The Purple Onion in 1955 at age 37. She was an instant success, and her professional career as one of the first famous female comedians was launched.


Everett Collection

That led to comedy albums, movie and TV appearances, books and more over the years as she perfected her self-deprecating humor and legendary onstage appearance — wild hair and clothes, cigarette holder and, of course, that laugh.

Diller particularly appealed to women who finally heard a voice that humorously addressed their experiences (some of the jokes came at the expense of Diller’s fictional husband “Fang,” whom she created to be “even more idiotic” than her own eccentric character). The comedian also had a large following in the LGBT community, where she became an icon.

Younger generations who may not have seen Diller during her 1960s-’70s heyday of appearing in everything from What’s My Line? and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to voicing herself on The New Scooby-Doo Movies likely have seen (or heard) her in more recent projects.

Among that later work, Diller recurred as Gladys on The Bold and the Beautiful from 1996-2012; voiced Granny Neutron in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius from 2002-04; and voiced Peter’s mom in early Family Guy episodes.

The past and present of comedy came together when Diller appeared on Roseanne Barr’s reality series Roseanne’s Nuts in 2011. That pairing of Barr with one of her major influences was likely good for more than a few famous cackles.

Diller passed away at age 95 in the year following her appearance on Barr’s show, but her laugh — and her influence — continues to echo throughout comedy.

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Classic Comedy Duos

March 2021

Chuckle at television & films funniest comic duos.

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