LOS ANGELES - Phyllis Diller, the zany housewife-turned-stand-up comic with the electrified hairdo, outlandish wardrobe and a barrage of self-deprecating jokes punctuated by her trademark laugh, has died. She was 95.
Diller, whose career in comedy clubs spanned nearly 50 years, died in her sleep Monday at her home in Los Angeles.
As a professional comedian, Diller was a late bloomer: The Ohio native was an Alameda, Calif., mother of five when she made her nightclub debut at the Purple Onion in San Francisco in 1955 - at age 37.
Known for her adept timing and precisely structured jokes, Diller took pride in being able to deliver as many as 12 punch lines per minute.
The first laugh came easy. With her fright-wig hair and garish attire that typically included a fake-jeweled cigarette holder, gloves and ankle boots, she merely had to walk on stage.
But Diller was always the first to address her colorfully eccentric stage persona, describing herself as "The Elizabeth Taylor of 'The Twilight Zone' " and a woman who once worked "as a lampshade in a whorehouse."
During her long career, she was in more than two dozen movies, including three with Hope, with whom she also appeared on numerous TV specials and traveled with to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops.
She also was the host or star of three TV shows in the 1960s. But the outlandish Diller always shined best in nightclubs, showrooms and concert halls, where one of her favorite targets was her domestic life, including her fictional husband, "Fang."
"I don't like to cook; I can make a TV dinner taste like radio," she'd say.
"Fang's idea of a seven-course dinner is a six-pack and a bologna sandwich. The last time I said let's eat out, we ate in the garage."
"I put on a peekaboo blouse. He took a peek and booed."
Then she'd launch one of her patented guffaws: "Ah-HAA-haa-haa!"
In his book "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s," author Gerald Nachman writes: "Diller wasn't the first woman stand-up comedian, but she was the first to make it respectable, to drag female comedy out of the gay bars, backrooms and low-rent resorts and go toe-to-toe with her male counterparts in prime clubs."
Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, Diller made people laugh at an early age.
"When I realized I looked like Olive Oyl and wanted to look like Jean Harlow, I knew something had to be done," she once said. "From 12 on, the only way to handle the terror of social situations was comedy - break the ice, make everybody laugh. I did it to make people feel more relaxed, including myself."
After graduating from high school, where she was voted most talented, she studied music and voice at a conservatory in Chicago. She eloped with Sherwood Diller in 1939 and settled into married life. During World War II, Sherwood worked at a B-24 bomber plant, but after the war, times were tough.
To help support her family, she worked as the women's editor at a small newspaper, an advertising copy writer for an Oakland department store and later an Oakland radio station. From there, she became director of promotion and marketing at KSFO, San Francisco's top radio station.
All the while, Diller had amused friends at parties with her jokes about household drudgery. She was so good that her husband began pushing her to become a professional comic.
She lacked the confidence to do it until she read a self-help book, "The Magic of Believing" by Claude M. Bristol. Inspired by its message of empowerment, she began to write her own comedy routines, hired a drama coach to give her more stage presence and took whatever paid or unpaid performing jobs she could get: at hospitals, women's clubs, church halls.
When she started, Diller told United Press International in 1984, "I looked like the woman next door. I mean, I was just anybody, and onstage that just doesn't work. My opening night I wore a cotton dress. I had brown hair - pullleassse."
She then broke into her infectious, trademark laugh.
"So, little by little, I learned," she said. "Making myself a blonde was the first step. I started dressing more theatrically, and then I realized I couldn't make body jokes if they could see my actual figure, because I had a good figure. That got me to those little dresses, and then later, I designed my funny boots and gloves. I had to wear gloves because all clowns wear gloves."
The famous hairdo, she said, was an accident.
"I had gotten into so much trouble bleaching my hair myself that I had to go to a scalp clinic, and they gave me this comb and said brush the top of your head for circulation. My hair was standing straight up after that, but I was so busy I'd forgotten to put it back down when I'd go out on interviews for jobs. But it worked."
She rose swiftly up the show-business ladder, appearing as a contestant on Groucho Marx's TV quiz show "You Bet Your Life" in 1958, the same year she made the first of numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Paar.
Unlike most performers, the older Diller got, the better she looked. Of course, she had help - a lot of it.
She never tried to conceal this fact and even kept a plastic surgery résumé, which she would give to anyone who asked. And she continued to make jokes about her appearance.
"I've been done over so many times that no two parts of my body are the same age," she'd say in her act. "When I die, God himself won't know me. My face has been pulled up more times than Bill Clinton's pants."
Diller, whose career included a stint starring in "Hello, Dolly!" during its original 1964-1970 run on Broadway, retired from doing her comedy concert act in 2002 after 47 years as a stand-up comedian.
Her marriage to Sherwood Diller ended in divorce, as did a second marriage to actor Warde Donovan. Diller is survived by a son, Perry; a daughter, Suzanne Mills; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
The New York Times contributed to this report.