Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Memories of Phyllis Diller

Before a wave of texts, calls and emails informed me of Phyllis Diller's passing yesterday, there was an omen that morning. As I often do when showering, cleaning, cooking or, in this case, packing a suitcase, I play iTunes on shuffle. With 7,500 sound files, it's the only way to hear them all.

I was packing for home, leaving Denver after co-producing seven comedy improv shows to benefit Smile Train, a cleft charity. From the other room, I heard Phyllis repeat my name. "Heather. Well, that is about the prettiest name. I just love that name Heather." I smiled, recalling the memory of the recorded radio interview I'd done with her years before. She was so gracious and I was so nervous but the interview had gone well. I'd forgotten the sound file was in my iTunes library.

I'd heard the interview a dozen times since so I went and hit the forward button, taking me to the next random selection, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" by The Smiths.

Some weekday afternoon, around the turn of this century, I found myself on 24th floor conference room in downtown San Francisco. The bay view was indescribably beautiful, though the meeting was excruciatingly dull. Instead of taking notes, as expected, I instead made a list of things to do prior to death - the term "bucket list" had not yet become common. Somewhere on there, in between "Write a book" and "Gallop a horse across the Golden Gate Bridge" was "Meet Phyllis Diller."

Phyllis Diller and Heather Clisby

To me, Phyllis was the ultimate comedy pioneer, someone I had long admired not just for her steady, successful career but for the way she approached the craft, with razor-sharp precision. And let's face it, comedy has long been a world dominated by men. Today, less so. (Yay!)

My life has always included a comedic compartment, whether as a performer (some LA stand-up but mostly improv), a humor writer or rabidly appreciative audience member. I grew up memorizing the albums of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Robin Williams. In fact, I still collect classic comedy LPs and in a grand gift from the Universe, got to embrace Bob Newhart on a plane with his express permission. I am a true comedy nerd. (Come October, I'm driving six hours to see Louis C.K. in Minneapolis - insane.)

Around the time of the fateful Boring Meeting, I was occasionally writing for the still-new BUST magazine, and in a fit of confidence, pitched them a profile on Phyllis. The editor, Debbie Stoller, (who is rad) flipped over the idea and insisted we include a photo shoot as well. Beyond Phyllis's famous over-the-top laugh ("I came out of the womb like that," she'd told me), the bulk of her act was based on her so-called ungainly looks. This, I discovered, was a deliberate strategy to appear more vulnerable, non-sexual and more clownish - a key to her self-deprecating act. ("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," tweeted Joan Rivers yesterday.)

And so, writing about Phyllis wasn't enough, she must be photographed too. We agreed to meet …. at her house.

In one long deafening squeal, I packed for LA, grabbed my vintage copy of her 1961 live album, "Laughs" for an autograph, and prepared to meet my idol, which can be a tricky thing. What if the object of one's admiration is not what's imagined? What if they are rude? Uncaring? Indifferent? Worst of all, what if she wasn't funny? I had been disappointed by false celebrity before and was wary. Sure, she was charming on the phone for 20 minutes but hell, even I can do that.

For 30+ years, Phyllis lived in the same Brentwood home in West LA. She called the area "Murderer's Alley" for her infamous neighbor, OJ Simpson. ("What a nightmare that was. We were trapped.") The home is spectacular, tasteful without being ostentatious. Her office walls are covered with head shots of famous comedians and friends, all of them fans. (Richard Lewis' inscription summed them all up: "I adore you!")

Phyllis had named her living room The Hope Salon and a full oil portrait of her friend and mentor, Bob Hope, was lit up next to the grand piano. The entry hall had a giant oil painting of an empty stage with a lonely microphone and a spotlight, signed by the artist herself, Ms. Diller.

Phyllis Diller was much more beautiful in person than I'd expected. With all that plastic surgery, I was prepared for a disturbing image, like seeing Meg Ryan at a distance. Not at all. "The trick with the surgeries is knowing when to stop," she told me. "I once had the best plastic surgeon and then he up and died on me ... the NERVE!" Phyllis looked wonderful - an attractive older woman but not at all plastic. At some point, I mentioned my own very-different experience with plastic surgery as a child and young adult (25 surgeries) and she was fascinated, asking me questions and listening with real concern.

That was another striking surprise about Phyllis, her impeccable manners and her incredibly sharp mind. Nothing escaped her - politics, social issues, geographies, the arts - and like any lifelong student, she was never bored. While talking in her living room, Phyllis became distracted by her cat, Miss Kitty, chasing a fly. "Oh, look! She gonna get it! Look at her!" she squealed. "Now then, where was I?" Meanwhile, I'm thinking, 'God, I love this woman.'

Phyllis lived very much in the moment, as along as that moment was stimulating. She once told her friend, the comedian/magician, Penn Jillette, "If I try something new and I'm not good at it, I get bored and quit. There are too many other things to master."  Somewhat famously, Phyllis did not suffer fools - she could be curt and impatient. She was also famous for never, ever giving an encore performance, no matter how frantically the audience clapped. "When I leave the stage, that's it. I don't come back," she said.

At some point during that visit, I'd made the mistake of complaining about my age - I was 36. "HA!" she blurted, and then came up and poked me in the chest with every word: "I hadn't even been on stage yet when I was your age!" And then again for good measure, another sharp poke, "HA!"

More than anything, her pointy point made me realize how long this life could be, how much I could get done. I can still feel her finger poking in to my chest and it pushes me forward to do scary, productive, fun-for-fun's-sake things.

This is a woman who, after birthing six children (three of them preceded her in death), became the world's first female stand-up comic. She was 37 years old when she climbed up on stage at The Purple Onion in San Francisco on March 7, 1955. Her husband, Sherwood, battled depression and couldn't keep a job so it was up to Phyllis to support the family. (He was, however, hot in the sack, she confided.)

I asked Phyllis if she knew she would become famous. She sighed and, for once, was quite serious, "Yeah, I knew." Diller is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for delivering 12 punch lines per minute - a record that still stands today. Watching her act or listening to her old comedy albums is like witnessing lighting - it's so quick, so natural, so powerful. It lights up the room in one bright flash after another. Her son, Perry, once observed, "Mom rides the audience like a jockey rides a horse."

As if this weren't enough, Phyllis also became an accomplished concert pianist, performing with over 100 symphonies across the US. Her arthritis kept her from playing the later years so she turned to painting. She'd produced some greeting cards and even sent me a batch. While the photographers were setting up the equipment in her living room for the shoot, I asked if I could see her artist's studio. She turned to her housekeeper, Dottie, and said excitedly, "Take her upstairs. Show her the wig room too!" I had my camera and Phyllis Diller was giving me the run of the place; it was like a dream come true.

Her youngest kid, Perry, was a wild teenager and former heavy metal drummer and he'd wallpapered his bedroom in black-and-white tiger stripes. After he moved out and become a banker, Phyllis turned the room into storage for all her wigs and show costumes. I nearly fainted. I snapped a few photos (they are somewhere here on the farm, I swear) and moved on to her artist's studio, which included several paintings in the works.

Also in the studio was one of the most valuable things I have ever laid eyes on - a big wooden, square file cabinet (like the ones in libraries) with long drawers holding endless 3"x 5" cards. Each card had a Phyllis joke on it (she wrote all her own stuff) and they were organized by topic! There were thousands of cards in there, it was quite astonishing. In the coming years, I would worry about that collection and urge her to get it into a museum. Finally, she told me it had a reserved spot in the Smithsonian, thank God.

As I came down the stairs, she looked up, "Well, whattya think?" I shook my head, "I think that there are about 30 very average people walking around right now - you've hogged enough talent for all of them." She laughed her famous laugh and enjoyed that theory very much.

I cannot begin to describe how much fun it was to be able to make someone like Phyllis Diller laugh. Of course, I couldn't resist trying. I had memorized bits of that 1961 album and performed them back to her - man, she loved that. She just roared. And honestly? I don't think it was my performance, she was admiring the genius of her own writing. When I reenacted her bit about aging, ("A woman hits 40 going 90 miles an hour and BOY, that's a crack up...") she laughed loudly and said, "God, that's brilliant!"

But my favorite secret fact about Phyllis was that she was a big-time foodie and simply reveled in cooking. When touring, she'd bring all her own food, cookware and hot plate and make gourmet dinners for her staff after each show. She talked about how careful she was in peeling tomatoes for a specific recipe, "I'm a classicist, you see."

During one phone conversation, she mentioned to me that she was about to go to the market. (She no longer drove herself though she would occasionally take out her 1927 Mercedes Excaliber Phaeton complete with gangster headlights and a horn that played "Bridge on the River Kwai.") I asked what she was going to buy so she excitedly grabbed her shopping list and read it off to me. In addition to the usual meats and vegetables, the list included three flavors of Jello-O. "I LOVE Jell-O," she declared.

So, when her birthday rolled around that year, my father urged me to send her a giant box filled with Jell-O packages. She sent me a long thank-you note (Phyllis is quite the formal corresponder) "I laughed so hard! Thanks for giving me a gift I could really use."

After that, I was on her Christmas card list, which was an annual delight. Her penmanship was exquisite, though I could see the lines getting shakier as the years went by.

When I last spoke to her, it was post-martini time - she had one every night. Her secretary initially apologized to me in mousy chirps, "I'm sorry but Ms. Diller doesn't talk to anyone after 8:30 p.m. ... " and then Phyllis jumped on another phone line and shouted enthusiastically, "Heather, DARLING! You KNOW that come June, I think I'll be running out of my Jell-O stash so .... " I took the hint and sent her another big box that year for her birthday in July.

I could spend hours reminiscing about Phyllis, what she meant to me, to women and the world of comedy. I'm so honored to have met her and walked the earth at the same time. There's a spot in my heart - and my chest - that carries the mark of her influence. As Morrissey declared with foresight, hers is a light that will never go out.

Rest in peace, Phyllis. I hope they have canes full of gin in heaven, and tell Bob we all said hello.


Check out my 2006 review of the little-seen documentary on Phyllis's stand up career, "Goodnight, We Love You." 

This was cross-posted on BlogHer.com