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Killer Diller
From Alameda housewife to superstar comic, Phyllis Diller tells all in 'Lampshade'

By Chad Jones, staff writer
Inside Bay Area

THERE ARE LAUGHS and then there are laughs.
Phyllis Diller built a comedy career on her laugh, a squawk, cackle and guffaw all rolled into one distinctive blast that she was able to use as a sort of exclamation point or sharp stick when rattling off a string of jokes.

"I realized on our first wedding anniversary that our marriage was in trouble. Fang gave me luggage. It was packed. My mother damn near suffocated!"

Pow. Cue the laugh blast.

That's what Diller calls a triple whammy, a layered joke in which each line builds on the other, "each revealing something new about the idiots around me even though I'm clearly just as stupid."

Diller outlines her methodical approach to comedy and spills a whole lot of juicy details about her life and career in "Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy" (Tarcher Penguin, $24.95).

Unlike her previous books — the now out-of-print "Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints," "Phyllis Diller's Marriage Manual" and "The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them" — Diller actually wrote this one, although she did have help from co-author Richard Buskin, whom she calls "a lovely, darling man."

On the phone from her home in Los Angeles' tony Brentwood section, Diller, 87, says her memory for remembering biographical details is sharp — so sharp, in fact, that some of "Lampshade" was painful to write.

In addition to her triumphs as a pioneering woman in the predominantly male world of stand-up comedy, Diller recounts her two troubled marriages: one to Sherwood Diller, who inspired her comedy character Fang, and one to Warde Donovan Tatum, an alcoholic who turned out to be gay.

She also details her daughter's battle with schizophrenia, the breech birth of a son and the loss of two of her five children to cancer in later life.

"A lot of the people in the book are dead, honey," Diller says. "I only told the truth. If you're going to have a real story, you have to tell the truth."

She doesn't avoid writing about intimate details: "Sherwood was lousy at sex. ... I felt like a trampoline. ... Because of his behavior I can't think of him fondly. He was cruel. Cruel and brutal."

Originally from Lima, Ohio, Diller ended up in Alameda in the late 1940s with five kids and an unemployed husband.

"Alameda was a lovely place to live," she says. "It was a little town then, and I remember our house in the Fernside district: a split-level California stucco with rhododendron bushes that just bloomed and bloomed."

But all was not happy in the lovely little town.

"We were broke, broke, broke," Diller recalls. "We decided I had to work."

Turned down for a job as a music librarian at the Oakland Tribune, Diller ended up writing a shopping column for the San Leandro News-Observer.

"I had to sell advertising and the whole bit," Diller says. "Whenever they'd allow it, I'd make it funny.They'd send me to functions as a society writer, and occasionally I could write a real story."

That job lasted three months and was followed by writing advertising copy for Kahn's department store in downtown Oakland, then a stint writing ad copy for Oakland radio station KROW.

Working full time, raising five children and coping with a lump of a husband, Diller somehow managed to find time for inspiration. She stumbled upon "The Magic of Believing," a self-help book by Claude M. Bristol that she took to heart.

She believed she could have a fabulous life, and soon, she was across the Bay doing more ad writing for KSFO radio and slowly realizing that she was an exceptionally funny person. Almost by accident — and with more than a little push from husband Sherwood — Diller found herself in the center of San Francisco's bustling North Beach cultural scene.

"Boy, was that a hot time," Diller says. "Hell, I didn't know what I was doing. I just fell into it. I mean, my God, City Lights bookstore with Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. Mort Sahl was blazing a trail of political humor. Carol Doda with her (act); Johnny Mathis with his voice. The Kingston Trio. The Limeliters. Dave Brubeck. It was hot, hot, and it was all just beginning."

Diller made her comedy debut at North Beach hot spot the Purple Onion in March 1955. She was 37, what she calls a "late bloomer, but honey, it's good to have a little life under your belt when you start something."

As a classically trained pianist and singer, Diller incorporated music into her act and was a hit.

Her star really ascended with a 1958 appearance on "The Jack Paar Show," an event Diller calls a "huge turning point." That show put her on a trajectory that would include constant TV appearances, fright wigs and bejewelled house coats, three TV series, movies with Bob Hope, comic piano concerts with symphonies (under the name Illya Dillya), a well-publicized round of 15 cosmetic surgeries and a reputation as one of the world's funniest women.

Although she retired from the stand-up world three years ago, Diller remains active. She has a recurring role as Gladys Pope on the soap "The Bold and the Beautiful." It's a character she describes as "an old broad with a lot of fire. I love her because she's adorable and dangerous."

After receiving a pacemaker a couple years ago, Diller spends a lot of time at home painting.

"Oils are too slow," she says. "I work in acrylics, water and spit. You name it, I paint it: animals, landscapes, faces, bodies, seascapes, trees, dogs. I've sold thousands of paintings."

The rave reviews that greeted "Lampshade" have Diller thinking about another book. This one would be a compilation of postcards she wrote to friends from the road.

And then there's the movie biography that's in process with indie film darling Patricia Clarkson set to play Diller.

"It's just exploding all at once," Diller says. "I never stop scheming."

Looking back over her 50-year career, Diller says she's most proud of her family, which now includes four grandsons — "fabulous, darling boys."

"I think my children would say I was a good mother," Diller says. "Honey, my son is coming over for lunch. Every Monday he comes and we play gin. I've hidden some furry animals in various spots to scare him. We have a great time. Oh my God, we have such fun."

And then, just where you expect it, pow! Out comes the laugh like a period to punctuate the end of the conversation.
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