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Comedian Phyllis Diller dies 'with a smile on her face'

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Wed August 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Her son, Perry, "found her with a smile on her face," her manager says
  • Diller's career as a stand-up comic skyrocketed in the 1960s
  • She was a pop culture icon for her jokes about her looks, cooking and fictional husband, "Fang"
  • "She was a true pioneer," her talent agent says

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Comedian Phyllis Diller, known for her self-deprecating humor, died "peacefully in her sleep" at her Los Angeles home Monday morning, her manager told CNN. Diller was 95.

Her son, Perry, "found her with a smile on her face," manager Milt Suchin said.

Diller's career as a stand-up comic, which she started at age 37, skyrocketed in the 1960s, partly because of her many appearances with Bob Hope on his television specials, USO tours and three movies.

Gilbert Gottfried: Above all else, Diller was hysterical

She became a pop culture icon for her disparaging jokes about her looks, her cooking and her fictitious husband "Fang." She wore a blonde fright wig, held a long cigarette holder as a prop and laughed with a loud cackle.

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.
Diller through the years
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Photos: Phyllis Diller through the years Photos: Phyllis Diller through the years
Phyllis Diller, who died this week, made an artform out of wisecracking. She was prolific, self-deprecating and slyly radical: Her jokes tended to focus on her failings as a housewife, her lack of sex appeal, and the shortcomings of an imaginary husband and overweight mother-in-law.<br/><br/> <br/><br/> Phyllis Diller, who died this week, made an artform out of wisecracking. She was prolific, self-deprecating and slyly radical: Her jokes tended to focus on her failings as a housewife, her lack of sex appeal, and the shortcomings of an imaginary husband and overweight mother-in-law.



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Queen of the one-liners: Late comic Phyllis Diller\'s funniest gags Queen of the one-liners: Late comic Phyllis Diller's funniest gags

One line attributed to her demonstrates how Diller got laughs: "Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room."

"She was a true pioneer," said talent agent Fred Wostbrock. "She was the first lady of stand-up comedy. She paved the way for everybody. She paved the way for Joan Rivers, Chelsea Handler, Roseanne Barr, Ellen Degeneres, and all the women stand-up comics. She was the first and the best."

EW.com: 'She was a true pioneer'

Joan Rivers: 'I adored' Phyllis Diller
2011: Phyllis Diller teases Anderson

Joan Rivers posted a tribute to Diller 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," Rivers tweeted. "If she had started today, Phyllis could have stood there in Dior and Harry Winston and become the major star that she was. I adored her!"

Roseanne Barr tweeted that Diller was "a revolutionary woman who inspired me."

Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler and more remember Diller

"last time I saw Ms. Diller she'd a stroke & when her assistant told her she could no longer drink gin, I immediately took her out 4 martinis," Barr tweeted.

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

Whoopi Goldberg called Diller "a true original."

Francesca Hilton, a stand up comic and daughter of Zsa Zsa Gabor, said Diller was her mother's best friend.

"She had the best laugh in the world," Hilton said.

Diller's best one-liners

Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, the daughter of an insurance salesman.

She had six children with her first husband, Sherwood Diller, who she married in 1939. She married Warde Donovan in October 1965, a month after divorcing Diller. The second marriage lasted 10 years.

She was trained as a classical pianist, but never pursued music as a career. She worked as a copywriter for a northern California newspaper, the San Leandro News-Leader, in the early 1950s.

She took the stage at San Francisco's Purple Onion Club on March 7, 1955, for her first stand-up comedy performance. She appeared as a contestant on Groucho Marx's show "You Bet Your Life" in 1957.

Her long personal and professional friendship with Hope began when the two met at a District of Columbia, nightclub in 1959.

Beauty and life lessons from Phyllis Diller

Diller's late-night national television debut came on "The Jack Parr Show" in 1959. Two years later, the first of her five comedy albums, "Phyllis Diller Laughs," was released.

NBC gave Diller her own variety show, "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show," in 1968.

Diller had a run on Broadway in 1970, starring as Dolly Levi in "Hello Dolly!"

She officially retired from stand-up comedy in 2002.

Diller's "creative passion" was painting, Beverly Hills art gallery owner David Streets said.

Her paintings were "very much a reflection of her soul, bright, funny, happy, whimsical full of color and life," Streets said.

Obituaries 2012: The lives they've lived

CNN's Jane Caffrey contributed to this report.

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