LOS ANGELES — Comedian Phyllis Diller, known for her self-deprecating humor, died “peacefully in her sleep” at her Los Angeles home Monday morning, her manager told CNN. Diller was 95.
Her son, Perry, “found her with a smile on her face,” manager Milt Suchin said.
Diller’s career as a stand-up comic, which she started at age 37, skyrocketed in the 1960s, partly because of her many appearances with Bob Hope on his television specials, USO tours and three movies.
She became a pop culture icon for her disparaging jokes about her looks, her cooking and her fictitious husband “Fang.” She wore a blonde fright wig, held a long cigarette holder as a prop and laughed with a loud cackle.
“She was a true pioneer,” said talent agent Fred Wostbrock. “She was the first lady of stand-up comedy. She paved the way for everybody. She paved the way for Joan Rivers, Chelsea Handler, Roseanne Barr, Ellen Degeneres, and all the women stand-up comics. She was the first and the best.”
One line attributed to her demonstrates how Diller got laughs: “Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room.”
Joan Rivers posted a tribute to Diller on Twitter.
“The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny,” Rivers tweeted. “If she had started today, Phyllis could have stood there in Dior and Harry Winston and become the major star that she was. I adored her!”
Roseanne Barr tweeted that Diller was “a revolutionary woman who inspired me.”
“last time I saw Ms. Diller she’d a stroke & when her assistant told her she could no longer drink gin, I immediately took her out 4 martinis,” Barr tweeted.
Ellen DeGeneres tweeted “We lost a comedy legend today. Phyllis Diller was the queen of the one-liners. She was a pioneer.”
Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, the daughter of an insurance salesman.
She was trained as a classical pianist, but never pursued music as a career. She worked as a copywriter for a northern California newspaper, the San Leandro News-Leader, in the early 1950s.
She took the stage at San Francisco’s Purple Onion Club on March 7, 1955, for her first stand-up comedy performance. She appeared as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s show “You Bet Your Life” in 1957.
Her long personal and professional friendship with Hope began when the two met at a District of Columbia, nightclub in 1959.
Diller’s late-night national television debut came on “The Jack Parr Show” in 1959. Two years later, the first of her five comedy albums, “Phyllis Diller Laughs,” was released.
NBC gave Diller her own variety show, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show,” in 1968.
Diller had a run on Broadway in 1970, starring as Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly!”
She officially retired from stand up comedy in 2002.