Diller was found in her bed at her home in the affluent Brentwood section of Los Angeles by her son, Perry, who had come to visit her, manager Milt Suchin said. “She had a smile on her face, as you’d expect,” Suchin told Reuters. Her publicist, Fred Wostbrock, called her “a true pioneer” and “the first lady of stand-up comedy.”
A friend and fellow comic, Joan Rivers, said on Monday that Diller cleared a path for a younger generation of female stand-up artists to trade on their jokes alone. “Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny,” Rivers said in a message posted through Twitter.
Diller created an indelible persona with her distinctive braying laugh, a cigarette holder, teased hair, outlandish costumes and a fictional lout of a husband she called Fang.
Her act consisted of rapid-fire jokes and one-liners that often spoofed social pretenses by poking fun at herself (“I went bathing nude on the beach the other day; it took me 20 minutes to get arrested”) as well as a world of invented characters.
In addition to husband Fang -- “What would you call a man with one tooth that was 2 inches long?” -- there was her mother-in-law Moby Dick, her skinny sister-in-law Captain Bligh and her neighbor Mrs. Clean.
Diller prided herself on keeping her jokes tightly written and boasted that she held a world record for getting 12 laughs a minute.
A late-bloomer by show business standards, Diller got her start at age 37, making her debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion in 1955 as she broke into the male-dominated comedy circuit. Her first national exposure came as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.”
At that time Diller was a housewife who had raised five children, as well as a newspaper columnist, publicist and radio writer.