PHYLLIS DILLER Comedian cackles at her life of laughs

Actress Patricia Clarkson will play Diller in a movie being made from the book.
"Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy" by Phyllis Diller with Richard Buskin; Tarcher/Penguin ($24.95)
You want irony? Give this a whirl: In her new autobiography, Phyllis Diller refuses to put on a false face. No cosmetic nips and tucks. No prettying things up. Simply take a peek at the book's brief forward:
"It is not my intention to offend anyone, yet in the interests of truth I do, at times, overstep the bounds of good taste. For this I apologize, but if you smell, you smell. ... Every person in this book, no matter how harshly treated, comes under my overall umbrella of love. Read it at your own risk."
If candor is indeed refreshing, then Diller is a heaping helping of invigorating oxygen. Or, as the former St. Louisan puts it herself: "You know, that's the way I am and always have been. I'm honest."
The comedy legend is speaking by phone from bed in her Brentwood, Calif., home. Just two days earlier, she'd celebrated the 50th anniversary of her first show-biz gig. At 87, she has decided with her new book to take a reflective look at a long career and even longer life. She also made the decision that honesty wouldn't be the best policy -- it would be the only policy.
"Come on, when people do their autobiography they always write and rewrite it -- they clean it up," she says. "I just didn't think that would be a very good idea."
You can say that again. "Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy" comes out swinging from the start. Before the reader has a chance to even settle in, Diller details a near rape, a traumatically dismal nightclub performance -- and a tale of how her parents, who never really wanted to become parents in the first place, received the false diagnosis that little Phyllis was "a tumor."
Comedy equals tragedy
Chapter titles include "The Funeral of the Month Club," "Stepping in Manure," "The Bottom of the Barrel" and "Like an Execution Without a Blindfold." One can't help but think of that scene from the Woody Allen film "Crimes and Misdemeanors," the one where Alan Alda's character explains how "comedy equals tragedy plus time." Like many great comedians, Diller has a resume that fits the bill.
"For years people have told me 'Oh you've got to write a book,"' she says. "It's such an unusual story, and the way I handled my problems, I believe, was also sort of unusual.
"Everybody has problems," Diller adds, "But boy, I had 'em all."
Even at age 87, she maintains that explosive cackle of a laugh, the first example of which she unleashes as an exclamation mark to the above sentence.
But back to those problems. Diller's parents were exceptionally unemotional -- "A family of handshakers ... there was no clutching or kissing," while her first husband, Sherwood, was what the comedian describes as an emotional wreck. Although the couple was married for more than two decades and had five children together, Diller pegs Sherwood as equal parts depressed, delusional, multi-phobic and generally downright dysfunctional.
(Diller points out that, contrary to popular lore, the husband mentioned in her comedy routines, Fang, was a fictional composite -- and not a nickname for Sherwood.)
"When I lived with Sherwood Diller, I had no idea he was nuts," she recalls. "But he was a completely hopeless person. I never did understand his behavior. It never made any sense. Ever."
Until recently, that is.
Diller says she now looks back at her first marriage and fully comprehends what she went through. (Such as: The Dillers' move into a Webster Groves house in 1962 coincided with Sherwood's decision to stop bathing.) Then there was husband No. 2, Warde Donovan Tatum, a tall and handsome actor who loved Diller -- but, unfortunately, also loved booze and those of the same sex. As for her children, Diller missed many of their childhood moments due to her career, but she also had to contend with mental and emotional problems that plagued a son and a daughter.
Positive thinking
But if it appears that this autobiography is beginning to resemble the unrelenting downer of, say, Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," then put that thought on hold. After reading a motivational book titled "The Magic of Believing," Diller, a housewife in her mid-30s at the time, suddenly transformed into a walking, talking -- and did we mention funny? -- archetype of the power of positive thinking. "I just got busy, just started taking over and handling everything," she says.
Above all, that meant trading in her old self-consciousness for a new self-confidence. Diller worked her way into the San Francisco night-life scene in the mid-1950s, steadily establishing herself as a female stand-up in comedy's old boys' club. Some of those in the testosterone network resented the intrusion, but a few key players saw the young comedian's potential. They just happened to be named Jack Paar and Bob Hope.
By the early '60s, Diller was making comedy and social history as a nationally known jokester, her routine filled with self-deprecating and insightful takes on marriage, domesticity -- and appearance. Familiar now was the trademark fright wig and boldly patterned wardrobe. The plastic surgery, 15 operations in all, would soon follow.
A place called home
It was in the first half-decade of the '60s that Diller established a connection to St. Louis. Sherwood Diller had relatives living in the area, and when Phyllis' road schedule got more and more hectic, the couple decided to let two of their younger kids move here for a chance at a more stable life. The Dillers lived out of their suitcases for months at a time, but in 1962, Phyllis put down $20,000 for the expansive house in Webster Groves. The family would call the residence home until 1965.
"Oh, I loved St. Louis," she says. "Gaslight Square. The Crystal Palace. Those were great times. My fondest memories are of going back to perform at the Muny. What a lovely park, and what a lovely town." What she misses most about the town, however, is the late Jack Carney. Diller made several appearances on Carney's KMOX morning radio show.
"Damn, I loved that man," she says. She then searches her memory, out loud, for the name of "that little sportswriter" who often appeared in skits with Carney and Diller. The name Bob Costas gets thrown her way. "That's it -- Costas!" she exclaims. "He reminded me one time that he was the kid that used to drop in all the time. And now he's turned out to be this big hot-shot sportscaster!" Once again, the nuclear-powered laugh detonates over the phone line.
And so does an occasional cough, or a raspy response. A heart condition forced Diller to retire from live performing a couple of years ago, so the only chance to see the comic on stage these days is via film: the highly acclaimed 2004 documentary, "Goodnight, We Love You," chronicles her final performance and is currently making the film festival circuit.
But Diller is hardly down and out. She paints regularly, inviting friends and followers over to see her work on special gallery nights at her Brentwood home. The night before this interview, she attended a sold-out book signing and did the old meet-and-greet. The night before that? An appearance on "Larry King Live" to discuss heart-related health issues.
Her book is already on its way to movie form (with Patricia Clarkson as the lead). And in just the past few days, Diller says, she had to turn down three film offers because of her physical problems.
"It's fireworks, I tell you," she says excitedly in that familiar voice, the one that brings back images of feather boas, paisley mini dresses, knobby knees and that ridiculously long cigarette holder. "Everything's bursting in the air for me, and it's all happening at once."
On March 7, 1955, Diller made her professional debut. Half a century later, her career still hasn't completely lost its bloom. "If you smell, you smell," she writes in her book's forward. But if everything's coming up roses, maybe that's not such a bad trait after all.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.