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My day with the late great comedian Phyllis Diller

August 22, 2012
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John DeBellis and Phyllis Diller from D.C.Follies

I don’t remember the exact jokes, although I do recall Fang, her legendary husband.  At the mention of Fang, her cathartic laugh leaped from her moth with such force I’m surprised it didn’t split any atoms.   Phyllis Diller was not a trend breaker; she was a trend shatterer.  She looked other-worldly; white hair not so much styled as it looked rearranged by an air plane propeller.  She held a long white cigarette holder, the female equivalent of the cigar; a male timing device.   She wore outfits that looked like they were made from a creature that was half sequins and half sasquatch and fit her like it was taken off a broken rack.  Her jokes were wild and created an imaginary world.  She didn’t just make me laugh, she took me to a place that Alice (from Wonderland) would have found quirky.  She was probably my first comedic influence and propelled me towards Jackie Vernon, Woody Allen, and Rodney Dangerfield.  Most of the time I would be watching her from the TV in my basement.  Between jokes I’d run upstairs repeating her punch lines.  Delivered from a ten year old kid, I think they lost some of the impact, especially when my parents were either arguing or my grandfather was yelling at the Untouchables, on TV, because the mob guys were getting caught.   My grandfather thought working on the wrong side of the law meant being a cop, if you get my drift.

Years later, I’m talking lots of years, the mid to late eighties, I got a chance to meet and work with Phyllis Diller on a show called D.C. Follies; a political satire that used life size puppets.   When performing she still had that definitive laugh, the crazy image filled jokes, the outlandish persona, but off stage she was so sweet, quiet, and complimentary.  Once you got to know Rodney Dangerfield he was like that; only a few quantum leaps more neurotic.   I told Ms. Diller, how much I admired her work and how it influenced my career.  She, of course, reacted in a self-depreciating manner, fitting of her character, but so genuine.  Her eyes listened along with her ears and sparkled like a kid watching fireworks.  We chatted about comedy, politics and then took a picture together, but what made that day even more special was when she delivered lines I had written.  It was my comedy life coming full circle.   She passed away two days ago.  The first person I told was Richard Lewis, who had already heard the news and loved Phyllis.  He sent me a recent picture of him and his wife and Phyllis.  Phyllis wore an unusual headdress that made her look like the Cleopatra of comedy.  I will miss her several times a day.  Next to my desk one of her albums hangs on the wall, Phyllis dressed to kill (as in murdering with laughter), cigarette holder in hand, about to launch a laugh that still echoes through my ear drums, and then I imagine her delivering the next surreal joke – probably about her crazy husband Fang.

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