Comedienne Phyllis Diller, whose raucous cackle and self-deprecating jokes about her own looks made her one of America’s first female stand-up comedy stars, died on Monday at age 95, according to her agent.
Diller’s agent, Fred Wostbrock, said in a statement her death was “a great loss today. She was a true pioneer, she was the first lady of stand-up comedy she paved the way for everybody. A true pioneer.”
Diller broke into comedy in the 1950s, after a career as an advertising and radio writer. She was known for her distinctive, cackling laugh, large hair and outlandish costumes.
She suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1999, and retired in 2002.
Born in Lima, Ohio in 1917, Diller aimed many of her harshest jokes at herself, and made the antics of a fictional husband named Fang a permanent part of her routine.
“People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs – they still do,” Phyllis Diller US once said.
It was her first husband Sherwood Diller who urged her to try comedy as a career. She made her debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion in 1955, when she was 37.
She performed at the club for 87 consecutive weeks.
“I was one of those life-of-the-party types,” Diller told the Associated Press in 1965.
“You’ll find them in every bridge club, at every country club.”
Sherwood managed her career until their 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. The couple had five children together.
She was then married to entertainer Warde Donovan, but they separated within months.
Diller appeared in several movies and starred in two short-lived TV series in the 1960s. She continued to make appearances on US talk and game shows, and toured with Bob Hope through the USO, a troop morale non-profit.
Tributes were quick to pour in at news of her death.
We lost a comedy legend today,” Ellen DeGeneres tweeted. “Phyllis Diller was the queen of the one-liners. She was a pioneer.”
Joan Rivers said she was “beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller,” whom she described as a friend.
“The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.”
“She was the first lady of stand-up comedy,” Fred Wostbrock, her publicist told Reuters. “She paved the way for everybody.”