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

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

Phyllis Diller (July 17, 1917–August 20, 2012) 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.


William S. Burroughs on Creativity

“The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.”

“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t,” cultural critic and Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus observed in his fantastic 2013 commencement address. But he wasn’t the first to recognize art’s capacity for opening our eyes by blinding us, for expanding our understanding of the world by illuminating our ignorance.

In this short clip from the altogether excellent 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers, William S. Burroughs (February 5, 1914–August 2, 1997) articulates the same sentiment and adds to history’s greatest definitions of art as he considers the value of creative pioneers, from Galileo to Cézanne to Joyce, in propelling human culture forward:

The word “should” should never arise — there is no such concept as “should” with regard to art. . . .

One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know they know. . . . Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness. But there is always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough. . . . So the artist, then, expands awareness. And once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.

(Burroughs wasn’t the first to articulate this notion, either. Forty years earlier, Bertrand Russell famously advised, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”)

Burroughs revisits the subject of creativity towards the end of his life in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library) — which also gave us his daily routine and his deep love for his feline companions — in a diary entry from January of 1997:

An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to “cosmic currents.” He has to behave as he does. If he has “the courage to be an artist,” he is committed to behave as the mood possesses him. . . .

The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.

Pair with Patti Smith’s account of Burroughs’s advice to the young and his cameo in the love letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.


The Cosmic Accident of Life: Alan Lightman on Dark Energy, the Multiverse, and Why We Exist

How we drew the one we have from the zillions of possible universes in the cosmic lottery hat.

Questions like why our world exists and what nothing is have occupied minds great and ordinary since the dawn of humanity, and yet for all our scientific progress, they continue to do so, yielding only hypotheses rather than concrete answers. But there is something immutably heartening in the difference between the primitive hypotheses of myth, folklore and religion, which handed off such mysteries to various deities and the occasional white-bearded man, and the increasingly educated guesses of modern science.

In the title essay of his excellent The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library), which also gave us this beautiful meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman points to fine-tuning — the notion that the basic forces propelling our universe appear to be fine-tuned in such a way as to make the existence of life possible — as a centerpiece of how modern scientists have attempted to answer these age-old questions.

The most compelling example of fine-tuning is dark energy — an invisible and unexpected cosmological force that hides in empty space and works against the universe’s slowing expansion, a sort of “cosmic accelerator pedal” that is speeding up its expansion and causing galaxies to drift away from one another. Mysterious as it is, scientists estimate that dark energy accounts for nearly three quarters of all the energy in the universe — a fact that renders it what Lightman aptly calls “the ultimate éminence grise … the invisible elephant in the room of science.” Still, dark energy might hold the key to illuminating the eternal conundrum of why we exist. Lightman writes:

On one thing most physicists agree. If the amount of dark energy in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, then life could never have emerged. A little larger, and the universe would have accelerated so rapidly that matter in the young universe could never have pulled itself together to form stars and hence complex atoms made in stars. And, going into negative values of dark energy, a little smaller and the universe would have decelerated so rapidly that it would have recollapsed before there was time to form even the simplest atoms.

But the natural question, then, is who or what did this fine-tuning. One explanation that doesn’t require an omnipotent “Designer” or benevolent “Creator” — in other words a theory that doesn’t succumb to the philosophy of ignorance — is the concept of multiverses, a premise of which is that the universe only “exists,” or has the properties we’re able to observe, to the extent that and because we are here to observe it. Lightman writes:

Out of all the possible amounts of dark energy that our universe might have, the actual amount lies in the tiny sliver of the range that allows life. There is little argument on this point. It does not depend on assumptions about whether we need liquid water for life or oxygen or particular biochemistries. It depends only on the requirement of atoms. As before, one is compelled to ask the question: Why does such fine-tuning occur? And the answer many physicists now believe: the multiverse. A vast number of universes may exist, with many different values of the amount of dark energy. Our particular universe is one of the universes with a small value, permitting the emergence of life. We are here, so our universe must be such a universe. We are an accident. From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life. But then again, if we had not drawn such a ticket, we would not be here to ponder the odds.

And just to make sure we’re properly dizzied, Lightman adds the scientific equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable This Is Water and writes:

If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles — to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are — is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is simply because we are here. The situation can be likened to that of a group of intelligent fish who one day begin wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe, they suggest, there are many other worlds, some of them completely dry, some wet, and everything in between.

The Accidental Universe is an exquisitely mind-bending read in its entirety, the kind that will leave you at once educated and disoriented, but above all able to embrace and celebrate the profound uncertainty that propels rather than hinders human knowledge.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons / Smithsonian Institution


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