August 20, 2012
Phyllis Diller, the much-loved comedic star of zany wigs, painful gag lines and an inimitable blast of a laugh, died this morning at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.
Last fall, the National Museum of American History debuted a collection of highlights from Diller’s multifaceted career. The show, entitled “Have You Heard the One . . ?” included a relic from the star’s life that might be among the most unique artifacts in the history of the performing arts—Diller’s joke file. The 48-drawer, steel file cabinet, which the star called “my life in one-liners,” contains 50,000 jokes, each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”
Diller’s famous one liners took self-deprecation to new limits. “When I first got into this business, I thought a punchline was organized drinking.” One can almost hear the ensuing blast of her famous laugh. And of course her relationship with her husband Fang was without exception, always good fodder. “Fang has some very strange ideas about housework. He thinks I should do it.”
“The [joke] file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”
Diller, it turns out was not only the boisterous comic of late night television. She was a multifaceted artist who besides stand-up comedy enjoyed painting and sculpture and was a classical pianist. According to American History’s curator of the performing arts, Dwight Blocker Bowers, she also harbored tendencies toward museum curation. Bowers remembers arriving at Diller’s home in 2006 to arrange for the donation. “She was the most organized donor I’d ever met.”
“She had a rack of her costumes that she wished to donate. Each costume came with a plastic bag attached to it and inside the bag, she had carefully included not only the props—her cigarette holder, the head-dress, the gloves, the shoes—but also a photograph of her wearing the entire ensemble. She was better at curation than I was,” Bowers jokes.
The museum is now home to an impressive Diller collection that includes ten of her costumes, a wig, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller’s signature props. (The cigarette was wooden: “I’ve never smoked,” Bowers says she always insisted.) The cache also includes a number of photographs—including one of her wearing the green and gold lame gown from her Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967—three of her comedy albums, and the scripts from two of her 1960s television shows. She also donated several of her sculptures including a self-portrait bust and one made of her hands. A curious relic of her artistic talents includes the painting she called “The Phyllis Fuge.” It depicts the notes of a musical score that she wrote.
“She was an artist,” Bowers says. “She was an accomplished pianist, she painted, she sculpted and she did stand-up comedy.”
“We even received two recordings of her singing,” Bowers added.
But did she have a good voice? “Well, she was not the recording industry’s best singer,” Bowers demurs, “but she was the best comedian.”
“I think the most important thing I can say about Phyllis Diller,” says Bowers, “is that she was like Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Just like Friedan, Phyllis Diller chronicled the daily lives of woman. But she did it with laughs.”
August 12, 2011
One of my great pleasures of writing The Object at Hand column, along with the chance to find and report wonderful “back stories,” has been the opportunity to interview remarkable people. Sometimes these interviewees aren’t well known, and sometimes they’re famous. Not being a household name is no indicator that an interview won’t be fun, any more than fame guarantees an intriguing conversation. But when fame and fascination mix, so much the better.
I found that happy mix interviewing the great clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, whose music had given so much joy to my parents, when he told me that after he retired, rich and successful, in his 50s, he never touched the clarinet again but went on to win many international shooting contests. And again when I talked to Mel Brooks about his time as a writer for Sid Caesar—on my cell phone on a California freeway, unable to take notes. But certainly one of my most memorable conversations was with the comedy star Phyllis Diller—memorable in large part because after getting off the phone with the comic, now in her 90s, my sides hurt from laughing.
The National Museum of American History now has on display Diller’s 48-drawer metal filing cabinet, each drawer filled with neatly organized cards that contain 50,000 jokes—give or take a knee slapper or two. Diller, whose career began in 1955—a bit late in life for someone taking on the rigors of standup comedy—told me that while jokes should seem spontaneous, collecting, recording and organizing material so that an act can be constantly refreshed is a key to success. Her cabinet of whimsical wonders was her way of doing that, and her long career as one of the pioneer women in comedy is testimony to how well it served her.
But back to the pain in my ribs. I have spent time with comedians and comedy writers who know what’s funny, and can make people laugh, but who are not notably funny in person, offstage. So I was prepared, as I dialed Diller’s number in Southern California, to have a sober talk about the business of comedy. I got plenty of good information, but what I also got was half an hour with a woman who is truly, spontaneously hilarious. There was nothing canned about her humor—for instance, she didn’t tell one joke of the vast trove she donated to the Smithsonian in 2003, not even any of the gags about “Fang,” her oft-targeted husband. But her response to my questions, and her way of telling tales from her long life, had me gasping for breath. Perhaps the most delight revelation of all was that Diller’s odd, three-beat laugh—Ha! Ha! Ha!—that I’d always assumed was part of her act when I watched her on television, is actually the way she laughs in life. And it’s infectious. When she laughed during our talk, I almost found myself laughing back the same way. She. Was. So. Funny.
-by contributor Owen Edwards
Watch the Smithsonian Channel video about the Gag File.
July 27, 2011
When pilots of an earlier era talked about “cross country hops,” the operative word was “hop.” In slow aircraft with limited fuel capacity, they flew from airport to airport, covering a distance in a day that modern planes cover in an hour or less.
So it was with Captain Matt Quy, who in his Spirit of Tuskegee Stearman biplane, is on a journey across the United States to deliver his historic aircraft to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum will open on the National Mall in 2015 and the aircraft will become a tribute to the Tuskegee Airman who flew in it.
Quy took off from Lincoln, CA, just after sunrise on July 9, in a temporary mini-formation with a friend in another Stearman. His pal peeled off and went home, and Quy continued eastward toward the snow covered Sierra Nevada mountains with a flight plan that has taken him to the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where Quy spent time with cadets and with eight Tuskegee Airmen. Then, he flew on to his home state of Minnesota for three air shows as well as meetings with Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol members, and community groups.
As of today, July 27, the intrepid captain is in his fourth day at what some have called “the mother of all airshows” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “It’s been great being here,” he said in a telephone conversation. “Everybody who sees the plane seems to appreciate what it represents.” One visitor to the show with a special appreciation for the Stearman was Lt. Col. James Warren, one of the most renowned of the original Tuskegee Airmen. Matt wasn’t able to give the colonel a ride in a plane he may well have flown because, as he points out, “Just now this is the busiest airport in the world, with several thousand airplanes on the ground. It took me half an hour to cross the active runways when I arrived.”
There has been the expected storm-dodging, but the seven-decade old plane has performed well, according to Quy, having reached 10,500 feet climbing over the Rockies. “We had a minor maintenance issue a few days ago,” he said, “but other than that the flight has been trouble free.”
Tomorrow Matt and his plane will leave for Tuskegee, Alabama, where the Stearman spent its youth as a trainer for America’s first black military fliers. And then on to Washington, DC, with a planned landing on August 2.
Weather permitting, of course.
Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions. Each month in Smithsonian magazine, he selects one artifact from among the Smithsonian Institution’s 23 million and tells its story.