Queen of Comedy Phyllis Diller dies at 95

Phyllis Diller, the trailblazing U.S. comedian who broke down gender barriers in the world of comedy, has died at the age of 95.
Phyllis Diller, seen at her Los Angeles home in 2005, has died at the age of 95. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

Phyllis Diller, the trailblazing U.S. comedian who broke down gender barriers in the world of comedy, has died at the age of 95.

Diller died Monday morning at her Los Angeles home and was found by her son, Perry, according to her longtime manager Milton Suchin.

"She died peacefully in her sleep with a smile on her face," Suchin told The Associated Press. No cause of death was disclosed, though in 1999, Diller had suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

Known for her punchy, distinctive, cackling laugh, Diller was a self-deprecating comic who debunked the traditional portrait of the happy homemaker by taking on the persona of a loud, eccentric, bizarrely dressed, corner-cutting housewife with a sassy tongue and wild observations.

A number of celebrities took to Twitter on Monday to celebrate the achievements of Diller.

"We lost a comedy legend today," Ellen DeGeneres wrote. "Phyllis Diller was the queen of the one-liners. She was a pioneer." 

Barbra Streisand wrote: "I adored her. She was a wondrous spirit who was great to me."

Comedy world late-bloomer

Born Phyllis Ada Driver in Ohio, she was an accomplished pianist who married at the age of 22. She and husband Sherwood Diller were based in San Francisco, where she balanced a successful career as an advertising copywriter with motherhood (the couple had six children, five of whom survived).

Diller drew from her own experiences when she began, at night, performing at comedy clubs in the mid-1950s. Her comedy career came relatively late: the busy mother and copywriter was nearly 40 before she got into show business.

Diller, a housewife-turned-comedian, appears in character in the 1966 sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton. (Associated Press)

A rare female stand-up comedian at that time, she delivered raw, outrageous routines about her fictional husband Fang and an arsenal of zingy one-liners about marriage, child-rearing and life as a housewife.

She became a regular at stand-up comedy clubs and landed several TV productions, including the sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton and the short-lived variety series The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. However, she truly became a television mainstay with her many appearances on game shows and talent contests such as Hollywood Squares and The Gong Show

Diller also appeared in holiday TV specials and on film with her friend and fellow comedian Bob Hope, who invited her to join him on one of his USO trips at the height of the Vietnam War.

Her first husband, Sherwood Diller, managed her career until their divorce in the 1960s. She was then briefly married to fellow entertainer Ward Donovan. Her partner Rob Hastings, a lawyer, died in 1996.

Influential female comic

Diller's barbed comedy — as well as her openness about her looks and pursuit of plastic surgery — paved the way for later contemporaries such as Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr.

"I'm beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller. We were friends," Rivers wrote 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."

Phyllis Diller on her famous laugh:

"It's my real laugh ... It's in the family. When I was a kid my father called me the laughing hyena," Diller once said.

"I often laugh and if everybody laughed that way, they'd be healthier," she said in another interview.

She largely retired from her stand-up career in 2002, though she continued to take on the occasional role later in life, including voicing the Queen in Pixar's animated film A Bug's Life and turning up in TV's 7th Heaven and The Bold and the Beautiful.

She also published a memoir, 2004's Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, and saw her career profiled in the 2006 film Goodnight, We Love You, which captured her final stand-up comedy gig.

"I was one of those life-of-the-party types," Diller told The Associated Press in 1965.

"You'll find them in every bridge club, at every country club. People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs. They still do."

With files from The Associated Press