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“A Smile Is a Curve That Sets Everything Straight”

Phyllis Diller, 37, mother of five, former San Leandro News-Observer shopping columnist, gets her first stand-up comedy gig at San Francisco’s Purple Onion on March 7, 1955.

The pioneering comedienne ends up playing 87 weeks straight at the intimate 80-seat cellar at 14 Columbus Ave. (The Purple Onion closes September 24, 2012.)

Armed with a cigarette holder, Diller, a non-smoker, lampoons fashion, housewifery and current celebrities. A music student and piano player, Diller’s initial act includes singing. One tune is “Ridiculous,” a send-up of the Eartha Kitt song, “Monotonous.”

DAYTON, Ohio -- Phyllis Diller, a stand-up comedienne, actress and voice artist, performed at the museum in 2002 as part of a ceremony honoring Bob Hope. An exhibit dedicated to Hope is located in the museum’s Kettering Hall
Phyllis Diller 2002 [140825-F-DW547-01] Courtesy National Museum of the United States Air Force

Over time, Phyllis Ada Driver — born in Lima, Ohio on July 17, 1917 — stops singing and morphs into the housewife-from-hell persona who says she’s on “Betty Crocker’s Ten Most Wanted List”  and does dinner in “in three phases: Serve the food, clear the table, bury the dead.”

Her self-deprecation is accompanied with  fright wigs, outlandish dresses, pointy shoes and a body she claims has had so much work “no two parts are the same age.”

The failings of her husband “Fang” — “his finest hour is less than a minute”  — are a staple of her more than 50-year career. Fang’s mother, “Moby Dick,” also is a recurring character.

Diller is credited as an influence by Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Roseanne Barr, and Ellen DeGeneres, among other comedians.

When she begins her career, Diller says there are no female comedians she can use as role models in the male-dominated industry

It’s her first husband, Sherwood Diller, who urges her to pursue a show business career. A self-help book, The Magic of Believing, gives her the courage to make it happen.

Her first national television appearance is as a contestant on Groucho Marx‘s quiz show You Bet Your Life in 1958. She appears in more than 40 movies over her career and multiple television shows.

Before her stand-up debut she films a local 15-minute TV show, “Phyllis Diller – The Homely Friendmaker.” Throughout her career, Diller says the audience is her editor. If a joke doesn’t deliver swift laughs, the joke doesn’t survive.

Over the years, Diller advises that:

 “Whatever you may look like, marry a man your own age – as your beauty fades, so will his eyesight.”

“They say housework can’t kill you, but why take the chance?”

“Never go to bed angry. Stay up and fight.”

“A bachelor is a guy who never made the same mistake once.”

“Aim high and you won’t shoot your foot off.”

“Always be nice to your children because they are the ones who will choose your rest home.”

“If you’re divorced and remarried don’t be constantly belittling your ex-husband. Concentrate on the present one.”

“Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that self-pity is better than none.”

“You know you’re getting old when you back starts going out more than you do.”