In Memoriam: Phyllis Diller paid tribute to the Oscars; Oscars fail to return the favor

Phyllis Diller, who died in 2012 at the age of 95, helped blaze a trail for generations of funny women not only in stand-up comedy, but also in TV and film.

“Just as people say Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels, Phyllis Diller was the first female comedian to do everything that Jack Benny and Henny Youngman did, only she did it faster and smarter and maybe even funnier,” wrote Joan Rivers in a posthumous tribute to Diller in the Washington Post. Diller had hired Rivers as a writer, for her first official show-business gig.

And in TIME, Rivers said Diller took her comedy cue from the movies: “If you look at typical movies from the time of her youth, it was always the unattractive, asexual friend who made the wisecracking comments. So when Phyllis decided to enter the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy, she created her entire persona out of whole cloth–the fright wig, the insane little boots and the loud, patterned dresses–which totally disguised the slim and chic woman within them. They were the armor that allowed her to be the first woman to walk out alone onstage, say hello, talk for an hour and conquer. Up until that time, only the Fred Allens and the Jack Bennys and the Alan Kings did this. Women would come out with music and songs and dances, with patter in between. Not Phyllis. She stood there, said what she had to say and leveled the playing field forever.”

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s and 80s, if you needed to punch up your panel, Phyllis Diller was your ticket to laughs — Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts, Laugh-InHollywood Squares, Bob Hope specials, game shows.

But in a cruel irony, Sunday night’s “In Memoriam” tribute during the 85th annual Academy Awards, as well as missing from the Oscars online companion In Memoriam slideshow. Yes, George Clooney introduced the annual tribute to the dead celebrities by saying there wasn’t enough time in the show to honor them all appropriately.

And yet.

As Roseanne Barr pointed out the next day, via Twitter: “In memory of Phyllis Diller, ignored by the Oscars last night-Bob Hope said she was the greatest comedian of the last century.”

Diller’s movie debut came in 1961 in an Oscar-winning film, Splendor in the Grass, starring Oscar nominee Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty and directed by Elia Kazan. Diller played Texas Guinan, a real-life nightclub host during the Great Depression. Roll the clip.

Diller also appeared in three films with Bob Hope, who has hosted the Oscars more than anyone else — 19 times, from 1940 to 1977. When Hope celebrated 50 years with NBC in 1988, Diller performed in that special’s “Salute to the Oscars.” She appears at the 2:30 mark of this video. Roll it.

If that’s not current enough, late in her life, Diller also worked with the 2013 Oscars host, Seth MacFarlane. Diller provided the voice of Peter Griffin’s mother, Thelma, in three episodes of Family Guy.

After she died, MacFarlane did dedicate an episode of Family Guy to her…and Michael Clarke Duncan. MacFarlane and the producers did include Duncan in this year’s In Memoriam. But not Diller.

There is one movie that did pay tribute to Diller, though.

Goodnight, We Love You. This 2004 documentary, which focused on Diller’s final stand-up concert performance and interviewed colleagues, peers and comedians who looked up to her, is available on Netflix Instant.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Phyllis Diller paid tribute to the Oscars; Oscars fail to return the favor

  1. I am so glad you have written this article. As a long time friend of Phyllis’, I was devastated to see that the Academy failed to include Phyllis in their tribute to those who passed since the last Oscar awards
    presentation. To have forgotten Phyllis is incomprehensible. Shame on the Academy! Her work in the movies and on television should have been acknowledged. This great lady, who brought such happiness to all, will NEVER be forgotten.

    1. P.S. Phyllis was ill with pneumonia during the opening of “Good Night, We Love You” at the little theatre on Westwood Blvd. A friend and I went in her place, and I took my cellphone with and called her, put it on speaker phone so she could interact with the audience and answer their questions.

      A great, great lady. Since the Academy has failed in their duty, Ruta Lee and I, and other friends of hers are going to put together a memorial this summer, with all of her comedic friends. It was her wish not to have a public funeral, but I know she will be looking down and laughing that marvelous laugh when all her friends “roast” her once again!

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