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Above all, Phyllis Diller was hysterical

By Gilbert Gottfried, Special to CNN
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Tue August 21, 2012
Phyllis Diller poses for a portrait in 1981 for her book "The Joys of Aging & How to Avoid Them." The pioneering comedian died at her home in Los Angeles on Monday, August 20. She was 95. Phyllis Diller poses for a portrait in 1981 for her book "The Joys of Aging & How to Avoid Them." The pioneering comedian died at her home in Los Angeles on Monday, August 20. She was 95.
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Diller through the years
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gilbert Gottfried: Phyllis Diller did stand-up when women weren't supposed to be funny
  • Diller was not just a funny comic, he says; she was a fine actress in movies and on stage
  • Gofffried: She did USO tours through Vietnam with Bob Hope, holding her own
  • In her old age, she was totally alert, funny, outspoken and a true pro to the end, he says

Editor's note: Gilbert Gottfried is a comedian and actor. Follow him on Twitter @realgilbert.

(CNN) -- Way before people such as Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin and Rosie O'Donnell broke ground for women in comedy, there was Phyllis Diller. She got started in the late '50s, a time when female stand-up comics were a rarity.

At this time, the concept of a woman's place was truly that it was in the home; women weren't supposed to be funny. And as much as they say nowadays that comedy and show business is a boys' club, it doesn't compare with the way it used to be.

Phyllis found her way in. Today, some women may condemn other women for doing self-deprecating comedy, but Phyllis did it and she took it to an art form and it wasn't threatening, it wasn't angry and, just in a nutshell, when all else failed, it was just plain funny.

Diller dies 'with a smile on her face'

People have many theories about comedy, but being just plain funny is the one most important thing.

Gilbert Gottfried
Gilbert Gottfried

You could not call Phyllis just a funny stand-up comic. She was a gifted performer -- an actress equally adept at comedy and drama. After her first big appearances on "The Jack Paar Show" brought her national fame, she had a successful career in movies, as a stage actress, at comedy clubs, on TV and on comedy albums.

When I was a child, TV was packed with variety shows, and she seemed to always be on the air. She was the ultimate downtrodden, frustrated housewife. She portrayed it to a freakish degree. I remember her coming on to the screen with what looked like a fright wig. Her hair looked like she had just stuck her finger in an electric socket.

Her dresses would be inappropriately short, and she would be holding her ever-ready, impossibly long cigarette holder. She appeared to be someone who would be a hero in the gay community, which she was. But Phyllis was a hero for everyone. Her jokes were always self-effacing and hysterically funny.

Here's one: "You know you're getting old when your blood type's been discontinued."

Comedienne Phyllis Diller: I'm a natural

Here's another: "I love to go to the doctor. Where else would a man look at me and say, 'Take off your clothes?' "

She used to talk about having a husband named "Fang." No one ever saw this "Fang" fellow, but to the TV public, he was mythical. We didn't know him, but we all knew him. He was stupid, frustrating and incompetent. We all had a very clear picture of him in our minds. She was much smarter than he was.

Because Phyllis was clearly smart. She did USO tours through South Vietnam with Bob Hope, and it is a testament to her skill that she could hold her own against a comedian like Hope.

But that's what a trouper does. She was born in 1917 and had an incredibly long career, recently doing voice-over work on shows such as "Family Guy." I had the honor and privilege of appearing three times with Phyllis. We were both guest judges on "Last Comic Standing," and we appeared together on "Hollywood Squares." We also were both in the documentary "The Aristocrats," the film about the dirtiest joke ever told, proving Phyllis was no prude.

In the documentary, after they show me performing the joke, they cut to a reaction of Phyllis fainting. I felt extremely honored.

When I worked with her in recent years, I'll say she looked roughly 1,000 years old, but walked without a cane, was more than totally alert, funny, outspoken and a true pro. She autographed her book for me and gave it to me as a present. I was so touched that I didn't even consider selling it on eBay.

Recently there were reports of Phyllis' declining health. I think she stopped working at that point, or worked less, at least. I don't know if her failing health killed her, or just not being able to perform like she used to.

In any case, whenever you watch comedians, male or female, they owe a great debt to Phyllis Diller.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gilbert Gottfried.

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