A real pioneer, young Phyllis Diller performed in the nightclubs around North Beach, the bohemian section of San Francisco humming with counterculture offerings: jazz clubs, strip joints, gay bars and beatnik hangouts. Diller made her debut at The Purple Onion. When she came onstage in second-hand evening clothes, highlighted by a ratty fur piece and a cigarette in an elegant holder, the predominantly gay audience was totally charmed and a love affair began.
Diller had her big break on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show in 1958, after years of trying to get booked. Her appearance led to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which made her nationally famous. She continued to perform stand-up around the country. A then-unknown Barbra Streisand was Diller’s opening act at the The Bon Soir, a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1960.
The Gays loved Diller:
Gay men have the most wonderful sense of humor, they are willing to laugh. They appeal to me and I appeal to them.
Diller returned the favor. Her one-liners skewered her gawky looks and her domestic life, but she never stooped to the homophobic humor of the time, even though gays were an easy mark during her era. Two of her best friends were gay guys: George Chakiris, who won the Academy Award for his role in West Side Story (1961) and Oscar-nominee poet/musician Rod McKuen.
Joan Rivers and I both absolutely insist that we never would have got started without our gay audience. They were the first to actually accept us as funny women.
She paved the way for Chelsea Handler, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman. She was the first female standup to headline in Las Vegas. In addition to being a performer, Diller was a writer, recording artist, spokesperson, gourmet cook, entrepreneur, philanthropist and humanitarian. She was much-loved within the industry.
My husband is so cheap. On Christmas Eve, he fires one shot and tells the kids Santa committed suicide.