Remembering Phyllis Diller without Apology

I thought it would be nice to start with a video of Diller’s performance without any frames.  She’s genuinely funny, and in spite of the garish dress, she seems very genuine. It’s difficult for me to find the rapid-fire one-liners of yore (and of Jeff Foxworthy) funny, but with Diller, somehow, it works.

Now for the frame.

I recently read a piece in The Atlantic commemorating Phyllis Diller, and I found myself panicking.  Author Ashley Fetters put together many of the points I wanted to make in this post already. (Don’t you hate it when such an esteemed and often brilliant publication says exactly what you were going to say?  It happens to me all the time.)

The piece was thoughtful and thorough, but the premise troubled me:

Diller’s trademark brand of hapless, self-deprecating, ugly-girl humor was based [on] an invented set of shortcomings she didn’t actually have. Which highlights a weird glitch in the system that still plagues women in comedy today: Why can’t funny women be hot? Or accomplished? Or smart? Why do so many women with these otherwise highly valued traits have to downplay them to get laughs?

I couldn’t read this without thinking of an argument Christopher Hitchens made in his Vanity Fair article: “Why Women Aren’t Funny:

In any case, my argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.

I want to emphasize that none of the people in Fetters’ article are even close to being as much of a dick as Hitchens. But the implications in both statements boil down to the same point of mutual exclusivity:  women who are sexually attractive by dominant standards of feminine beauty cannot also be funny.

Gina Barreca of the University of Connecticut echoes the premise of this argument in The Atlantic when she explains the “ugly female comedian” phenomenon (“You can’t have people look at you and listen to you at the same time”). She then mediates this premise by explaining that female comedians clowning up their sex appeal and their accomplishments are actually “stooping to conquer.” That is, while in their unsexy, unimpressive incognito, their humor is able to surreptitiously weaken the gendered hierarchy.

From PBS

Phyllis Diller in wool suit (gasp!) on the Carson Show.  She’s also rocking the signature Humor in America hand point!

I think that “stooping to conquer” is a tremendously useful concept in studying humor and power, but I think that at times it can be used to apologize for tactics that make activists and academics uncomfortable.

I want highlight the brilliance of Diller’s stand-up style unapologetically, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Christopher Hitchens’ perspective rear its ugly head again in another popular intellectual forum.

Consider exhibit A: Red Skelton performs on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968, just one year before Phyllis Diller’s 1969 appearance, which is the video featured at the top of this article.

Skelton is self-depreciating not only verbally, but visually.

Consider exhibit B: Joan Rivers performs on the Ed Sullivan show in 1967.

Rivers does not mask her idealized feminine sexuality or beauty (slender, fair-skinned, made-up), yet she aggressively criticizes gendered double standards.

To be fair, Diller began seriously performing as a comedian in the mid-50s, more than a decade before these performances aired.  To be even fairer, Skelton’s “Freddy the Freeloader” clown persona began in 1952.

I hurried through these counter-examples to return quickly to Diller’s comedy and comedic legacy.

Diller picked up on a trick of the trade early in her career. Standups are in a position that literally forces them to talk down to their audience. In order to win an audience’s reception, you must supplicate yourself.  To level the playing field, they must depreciate themselves or establish themselves as an insider.  If they don’t, their authoritative positioning merely puts the task of leveling in the audience’s hands.

By donning flashy, playful clothing, Diller, like many other comedians, established herself as a non-threatening presence.  Not only that, Diller created a recognizable brand.

I am not trying to ignore the gendered reasoning behind Diller’s style. I’m trying to reframe the conversation.

I prefer to think of Diller’s sparkling, ill-fitting dresses as disco balls, not sequined shrouds.  In order to break the glass ceiling of a profession dominated by males, she had to dazzle.  “Stooping,”even at her most self-depreciating, never described Diller.  Let’s remember Diller for what she was: a savvy performer and an accomplished comedian.

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