Phyllis Diller, the housewife turned comedian who aimed some of her sharpest barbs at herself, punctuating her jokes with her trademark cackle, died yesterday morning in her Los Angeles home at age 95.
"She died peacefully in her sleep and with a smile on her face," her longtime manager, Milton Suchin, told The Associated Press. Diller, who had a near-fatal heart attack in 1999, was found by her son, Perry Diller. The cause of death has not been disclosed.
Diller was a staple of nightclubs and television from the 1950s, when female stand-up comics were rare, until she retired in 2002. She built her act on the persona of the corner-cutting housewife with bizarre looks, a wardrobe to match and a husband named "Fang."
She inspired a generation of comics, including Joan Rivers, Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg. "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," Rivers wrote on Twitter.
Diller didn't get into comedy until she was nearly 40, after her husband, Sherwood Diller, prodded her for two years to give up a successful career as an advertising and radio writer.
"We had five kids at the time. I don't know how he thought we'd handle that," she told the AP in 2006. Her husband managed her career until their 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. She then married entertainer Warde Donovan, but they separated within months.
Through both marriages and other relationships, the foibles of "Fang" remained in her act.
In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, "The Pruitts of Southampton." Gypsy Rose Lee played a nosy neighbor. In 1968, she hosted a short-lived variety series, "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show."
But standup comedy was her first love. Although she could be serious during interviews, sooner or later a joke would pop out, often as not followed by that outrageous "AH-HHAAAAAA-AAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!" laugh.
"It's my real laugh," she once said. "It's in the family. When I was a kid my father called me the laughing hyena."
Her looks were a frequent topic, and she did everything she could to accentuate them -- negatively. She wore outrageous fright wigs and deliberately shopped for stage shoes that made her legs look skinnier.
After retiring from stand-up, Diller continued to take small parts in movies and TV shows such as "Family Guy."