Aug
31

“Why should I wash the windows? I’ve seen the neighbors.”

At 94, comedian Phyllis Diller has spent six decades joking about her bad cooking and housekeeping and her husband, “Fang.” A new display at the American History Museum’s Albert H. Small Documents Gallery pays tribute to one of America’s most iconic and influential female comedians.

Diller knew she had an infectious sense of humor and in 1955, with support from her husband and five children, she decided to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. Within five years, Diller was performing alongside such male entertainment icons as Bob Hope. From USO troops in Vietnam to households across America, the comic’s eccentric parodies, self-deprecating humor and zany attitude never failed to bring laughs. Her image is immortalized in caricatures and advertisements, some of which are also on display, painting a picture of the comic’s charismatic life.

Phyllis Diller

Diller kept her jokes organized in an enormous cabinet she dubbed her “gag file,” which she donated to the National Museum of American History in 2003. The file — containing 50,000 jokes — is the central object in the museum’s new exhibit, “Have you Heard the One…? The Phyllis Diller Gag File.”

At the center of the display is the gag file, a steel cabinet with 48 file drawers containing more than 50,000 jokes and gags typewritten on index cards by Diller during her career. It also includes some of Diller’s most iconic costume pieces—an unkempt wig, wrist-length gloves, cloth-covered ankle boots and a bejeweled cigarette holder, all of which became synonymous with her comedic persona. As her career progressed, Diller also worked her jokes into various books, which reached an even wider audience.

Phyllis Diller's gag file. (Photo by Hugh Talman)

“Phyllis Diller used her experience as a wife and mother to create a satirical persona outside the traditional values of her audience,” said Dwight Bowers, curator for the museum’s Division of Culture and the Arts. “Phyllis Diller really challenged the established mores about women at the time — that they were only homemakers and housewives. And she does it with humor, which means you laugh first, and then you think about what she said. It was her great dedication and talent that allowed her to break the gender barrier that existed in stand-up comedy at that time and pave the way for future female comics to have the same success.”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open a new display in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery Aug. 12. “Have You Heard the One…? The Phyllis Diller Gag File” brings to life one of America’s most iconic and influential comediennes.

“Phyllis Diller used her experience as a wife and mother to create a satirical persona outside the  traditional values of her audience,” said Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator. “It was her great dedication and talent that allowed her to break the gender barrier that existed in stand-up comedy at that time and pave the way for future female comics to have the same success.”


Posted: 31 August 2011
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.