A piece of my childhood just died and I and everyone else are going to miss her.
Phyllis Diller came out of the Mad Men era and her humor has to be appreciated in that context. She subverted the whole sleek, sophisticated model of womanhood that Demi Moore captures so well in Flawless, and she did it in a way that was revolutionary in American comedy at the time, by mocking herself.
She was funnier than any other comedian of the time. She was not just funny for a woman, she was funnier than anyone else.
Amanda Marcotte has written some articles taking issue with Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that women just weren’t very funny, and it would have been an insulting allegation, if that is in fact what he had been saying (thanks, guys), but for me it’s so uniformed and baseless as to need no refutation, even if Marcotte seems to be as unaware of that as Hitchens. Phyllis Diller was refuting it before Hitchens could spell comedy.
Her basic schtick was Revenge of the Housewives. Her comedy made fun of physical beauty – she once quipped that she had bought a Living bra but that it had starved to death. The other day I saw a reference to another one of her lines, that she had spent seven hours in the beauty salon, and that was just for the estimate. To my mind that was a much stronger attack on the fashion industry and the beauty-industrial complex than any number of man-blaming articles bemoaning the sexual objectification of women and the insecurity that that induces, that the industry feeds on. But it required an ability to laugh at one’s one complicity, and apparently that’s a bridge too far for most commentators.
She was not alone in her Revenge of the Housewives, there was a fun literature of comedic books back in the early 60s – Peg Bracken came out with the Complete I Hate to Cook Cookbook and there were others – but a literary niche market is one thing while competing on stage in a very full field is something else.
The tributes to her have mentioned how crucial she was in opening the way for female comedians and that’s very true, but it ghettoizes her to leave it at that. She opened the way for an entirely new kind of comedy, in which the comedian is mocking her or himslef, instread of mocking someone else and letting the audience participate in the cheap superiority that offers. She opened the way for male comedians like Steve Martin. She can even be said to have made Sarah Silverman and Daniel Tosh possible.
She was a true cultural revolutionary in a time of cultural revolution, and I am thankful for her body of work. And I am going to miss her.
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