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Phyllis Diller, Late Bloomer
Phyllis Diller passed away on August 20th, at the age of 95, and has been widely remembered for her eccentric persona -- the wild wigs, the claims of terrible housekeeping, the rapid fire one-liners. But besides being one of the first female comedians to make it big with her brash style of self-deprecating humor, Diller was also a relatively late bloomer. In fact, she didn't become a comedian until she was 37, and already a mother of 5. (I'm sure any mother of 5 is either a comedian or too tired to speak, or possibly both.) As Diller once told NPR, "The thing is, I had been doing [comedy] all my life without realizing it because I'm a born comic." So when her family was struggling financially, her husband convinced her to try her hand at comedy. And what do you know, it worked.
Besides a willingness to do anything for a laugh, and the creation of an outlandish persona, what set Diller apart? As she wrote in her 2005 memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, her impulse as a performer was never to copy, never to mediate, never to even pay homage; it was always to be purely herself: "I purposely never watched other comedians perform because I didn't want to copy anyone. I wanted to become me, totally me. The more me, the better. I instinctively knew this and I was right. My attitude, my material, and me—those were the components that distinguished me from the rest of the field right from the start."
Becoming "totally me" -- what a good goal, performer or not. And a useful mantra, it turns out, as it launched the 30-something star of PTA-skits into the annals of great comedy. Starting with her first television performance, seen in the clip below, in all its sweet awkward glory:
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