Brain Pickings

Comedy Godmother Phyllis Diller on What a Comedian Needs and How a Great Joke Works


“Edit. If one word can do the work of five, now you’re talking.”

Phyllis Diller is one of the godmothers of modern comedy and a blazing antidote to the lamentable and misguided cultural trope that women aren’t funny. Without Diller and the echoes of her legacy, ours may have never blossomed into the kind of culture that can foster a Lena Dunham or a Tina Fey. In We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (public library) — an oral history of exactly what it says on the tin, featuring recollections and anecdotes from such comedic icons as Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Sandra Bernhard and Joan Rivers — Diller reflects on her unlikely beginnings, what a great comic needs, and how a joke works.

She tells the story of how the confluence of necessity, circumstance, and creative ingenuity sett her down the path of comedy:

I was a housewife with five children. And we reached the bottom. My husband, Sherwood Diller, said, “You’re gonna have to get a job.” And I immediately looked for a job and got it at a newspaper in Oakland, California. For five years, I was writing newspaper advertising, and if an advertiser would allow me, I would write a funny ad. That led to radio. But my husband kept nagging me and telling me I had to become a comic. It was his idea. He thought I was funny. And of course he was thinking of the money.

I met a guy, Lloyd Clark, who was coaching the writer and poet Maya Angelou for the Purple Onion nightclub. He was sitting next to me at a little bar where they had a jazz group, and I said, “I’ve been looking for someone to coach me.” Lloyd knew about demeanor onstage. And he knew about attitude. He’s the one that gave Maya that queenly, regal entrance. And he liked me. I was skinny (I only weighed about 110 pounds), and I was well-spoken, and he was glad to have a new client. So I started preparing for the audition. There was no such thing as an open mic but since he knew all the club owners in the North Beach [San Francisco] area, and they all knew him, he got me my own audition. And the whole time during my audition, which I did very seriously, all dressed up and everything, they were ordering Chinese food. I don’t think they heard it at all. So I did it, and they said, “Thank you.” And that was it. They had just hired a male stand-up comic by the name of Milt Kamen two weeks before and they didn’t have room for me. But when Milt was offered a two-week stint in radio he begged them to let him go to New York for two weeks. Since I had just had my audition, they called me on a Friday night and said, “Could you open Monday?” And I said, “Yes.” And in the two weeks that I worked, they watched me improve day by day by day. Milt got back, and I’d had two weeks onstage at the Purple Onion, which was as long as he’d worked there before he left. So they had to decide: Which one of these two, the man or the woman, were they gonna keep? They couldn’t decide, so they kept us both.

Diller argues that a level of off-ness not only doesn’t hurt a comedian, but aids him or her. She recounts how she had to manufacture her own physical quirks in order to allow for the self-referential humor she sees as a centerpiece of standup:

It helps a stand-up comic to have something wrong — to either have buck teeth, no chin, weigh five hundred pounds, have funny hair, or be too skinny or too tall or too something. Like, for instance, a guy comes out and he weighs five hundred pounds, and he says, “I haven’t eaten in ten minutes,” something like that. To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience. So right away, you come out and kiss ass. And the reason I developed things like [wearing a bag dress] was because I had such a great figure. So I had to dress so that they couldn’t see any figure because I wanted to make jokes. I had ’em convinced that underneath whatever I was wearing, I was a skeleton, an ugly skeleton — and that’s what I wanted. My legs were really thin. Model thin. I stuck out what was thin and covered up what wasn’t, and everyone thought I was flat-chested.

Dillar defies Rowan & Martin Laugh-In creator George Schlatter’s complimentary assertion that her brand of humor was a science in which she held “the intellectual as well as physical participation of the audience” by constructing a joke like a play with a beginning, middle, and an end, all orchestrated to a meticulous rhythm. Instead, Diller counters with her own theory of what a good joke entails, echoing Mark Twain’s famous dictum to “use the right word, not its second cousin”:

Wrong! A joke has two parts — setup, payoff. Forget this bullshit in the middle. The quicker you get to the payoff, the better. My idea is edit. If one word can do the work of five, now you’re talking. And there are other rules. The joke ends, preferably, on an explosive consonant — like cut. Certain numbers work in certain places when you’re writing a joke. You’ll have to find just the right number — whether it’s eight or eleven. Every word. No one realizes what a science it is.

We Killed is a remarkable cultural artifact in its entirety. Complement it with Arthur Koestler’s seminal 1957 theory of how humor works.

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