Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller, PBS Pioneers of TelevisionWith her feet firmly planted in stand-up comedy, Phyllis Diller’s lightning-fast wit and self-deprecating humor made her a natural guest on game shows that developed in the late 1950s, 60s and 70s. The comedienne made a splash on the game show, “You Bet Your Life,” with host Groucho Marx in 1956.

“Meeting Groucho was a major thrill … I was not only nervous, I was petrified. Well, I was petrified the whole first ten years in the business. I shook visibly,” recalls Diller.

Diller, a mother of six children, used her domestic experiences to inform her comedy. And she was noticed by one of the most influential hosts in Hollywood — Jack Paar.

“He thought I was more than hilarious,” says Diller of Paar. He was fascinated by this skinny woman … who was over the hill to forty. He was just fascinated.”

Paar booked Diller regularly, and this national exposure helped make her career. She made appearances on talk shows and variety hours, but she made her biggest splash on game shows, where Diller’s rapid-fire responses paid off.

“Game shows give the public a chance to get to know you as a person because you’re not playing a role or not singing a song,” she says. “You’re speaking for yourself, in your own voice, so they feel that they know you a lot better than if you’re in a movie or in a television show.”

Phyllis Diller Is a Square

One of Diller’s most memorable gigs was on “Hollywood Squares,” a game show where stars sat in a large tic-tac-toe box and were challenged with trivia questions. Part of the joy of this show was the unscripted repartee between the celebrities.

“All five [Hollywood Squares] shows are [taped] in the same day, so that means you have lunch together. You meet all new people and make lifelong friends … and, sometimes they’re from out of town, and they’re all celebrities or very well-known somebodies, so, it’s like a party. It is truly.”

Diller is considered a pioneer for female comics, paving the way for strong women such as Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres.