Library of Congress, N.Y. World Collection
Phyllis Diller is featured in PBS's "Pioneers of Television."

Phyllis Diller made her first appearance on television 51 years ago, and it didn't go as well as she'd hoped.

She was a contestant on Groucho Marx's game show, "You Bet Your Life."

"I had been in the business just one year," Diller said in a teleconference with TV critics. "You talk about being green and wet behind the ears, I was wet all over. And I was just terribly excited. It was a great show and had wide viewership."

She was partnered with a physicist, "and neither of us knew the answer to the question."

(The question — what the newest country in Africa was at the time. The answer — Ghana.)

"Neither of us knew it. We both needed the money," Diller said. Still the appearance was "pivotal" in a career that made her the most famous female comic in America for many years.

"Can you name one other one? Well, there weren't any," she said. "I didn't know that. I didn't mean to be a trailblazer, I just needed a job. And my talent was being funny.

"I didn't even recognize that fact. My husband, Sherwood Diller, was the person who kept insisting that I become a comic. And I kept pointing out to him that there were five children involved here.

"And he said, 'Well, send them home.' And I said, 'We can't. They're ours."'

Diller said she and her husband argued for two years until she finally agreed to try her luck at being a stand-up comic.

"Then my problem was — how do you become a comic?" she said.

So, she called the Red Cross in San Francisco, where she lived at the time.

"I said, 'I have a show. Where do you want it?' They said, 'The Presidio."'

Diller wasn't exactly prepared to perform for patients at the Army hospital.

"I had 10 minutes of nothing." Her son played the banjo, they sang and she "told some jokes. I don't remember what I did. Very embarrassing. There were four people in the audience, all four of them in bed! Nobody laughed. One guy re-enlisted. Two of them died."

Still, it was a first step toward creating a persona that made her one of the most recognizable comics in America — the crazy clothes, wild wig and all the jokes about her husband, "Fang," and their children.

"No matter what you're doing in a creative way, you must stay with what you know," Diller said. "I knew nothing about politics. I knew everything about home life. So, you see, I did what I knew about — children, home life, husbands, neighbors."

And then there was her distinctive, much imitated laugh — the loud "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

"Oh, that's my real laugh. I can't help that," she said. "I guess it's contagious."

She's laughed and made others laugh through literally hundreds of television appearances. Diller is prominently featured in the upcoming PBS documentary series "Pioneers of Television."

"It never entered my mind" that those old TV appearances would still be around today. " I just went to all these shows because I was invited. I thought they were funny. And I always went with the idea that I must make people laugh. Because laughter is healthful and it's good for you. And I love to hear laughter."

And she made a lot of TV legends laugh. "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar was "the first person who really, really recognized me and liked me a lot." Diller "adored" Steve Allen, the first "Tonight" host, because he "had a quick mind and he knew how to hold back and allow the person he's interviewing to be the funny person."

"Bob Hope took me to a different level and made me feel that I was really funny," Diller said. "And, of course, I've had a wonderful life knowing all these wonderful people."

She was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," where she once got "my favorite laugh of all my life." She played the saxophone along with Jimmy Stewart on accordian, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty on banjo and Carson on drums.

"I hit a note ... that was ear-splitting and Johnny said, 'Stop the music!' And he gave me a dressing down. He just tore into me," Diller said. "And then everybody picked up their instruments, ready to play, and I said, 'What was it about it that you didn't like?'

"The roof came off. It was one of the biggest laughs I ever got, set up by dear old Johnny."

At 90, Diller is pretty much retired, although she continues to do voice-over work in everything from "SpongeBob SquarePants" to "Jimmy Neutron" to "Family Guy."

"I've done a few movies. When they need a 90-year-old woman, they always come and ask me," Diller said with a laugh. "And I've played two dead ladies. It's so easy to do. You just lie there and open your mouth. 'Cause without my wig, I really do look dead. Especially with my mouth open.

"I can't do a real movie or a real television role. Those voiceovers, those are simple. You can show up in your jammies and your curlers, do your work and go home. It takes just a matter of minutes. I simply don't have the energy. I have to save the little bit of energy I have to go out to dinner every night. Naughty girl."

But Diller said if she had it to do over again, she would.

"Are you kidding? What a life!" she said. "What a set of memories. Oh, gee whiz, I can't imagine having done anything differently."

If you watch

"Pioneers of Television" is a four-part documentary about the early years of TV. Beginning Wednesday at 7 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7, each one-hour episode focues on a different genre — sitcoms; late-night (Jan. 9); variety (Jan. 16); and game shows (Jan. 22).

Nearly 100 stars were interviewed for the series, including Bob Barker, Pat Boone, Dick Cavett, Tim Conway, Phyllis Diller, Hugh Downs, Barbara Eden, Bob Eubanks, Merv Griffin, Andy Griffith, Arsenio Hall, Monty Hall, Pat Harrington Jr., Florence Henderson, Tom Kennedy, Vicki Lawrence, Jay Leno, Art Linkletter, Peter Marshall, Wink Martindale, Ed McMahon, Mary Tyler Moore, Jim Nabors, Jack Narz, Tony Orlando, Regis Philbin, Joyce Randolph, George Schlatter, Doc Severinsen, Tommy Smothers, Jerry Stiller, Marlo Thomas, Bob Uecker, Dick Van Dyke, Sigourney Weaver, Betty White, Andy Williams, Jonathan Winters and Chuck Woolery.


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