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April 20, 2014

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As an artist and performer, Phyllis Diller used every card in the deck

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Las Vegas News Bureau

In this file photo provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau, comedian Phyllis Diller presents a National Laugh Foundation Award to Jack Benny at Caesars Palace. 11/9/66. She died on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 at age 95.

Phyllis Diller Dies at 95

Phyllis Diller poses with her photos at her home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, Friday, March 11, 2005. Female standup comics had never made the big-time, but Diller beat the odds, paving the way for Lily Tomlin, Rosanne, Ellen DeGeneres and others to follow. Diller relates her saga in her new memoir, Launch slideshow »
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Comedian Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller pause during a break in taping of iStand by for HNN. The Hope (Funny) News Network,i which will air on NBC-TV on Sept. 8. Hope is interviewing Diller who is portraying a 131-year-old woman n ithe oldest person in the world.i in Burbank, California on Sept. 3, 1988.

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Comedienne Phyllis Diller, 45-year-old mother of five, shown with her husband, Sherwood, Sept. 3, 1963 at the Americana Hotel in New York City.

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In this file photo provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau, comedian Phyllis Diller is on stage with singer Engelbert Humperdinck during the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. 1-8-78. She died on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 at age 95.

Rita Rudner well remembers the cards she received in the mail from Phyllis Diller.

“I always looked forward to getting a card from Phyllis,” Rudner said during a phone interview Monday afternoon. “I loved them, because they were was always Phyllis Diller originals.”

Meaning, the notes were written inside original, card-sized paintings.

Diller was a groundbreaking comedienne, yes. But she was an accomplished painter, and a great pianist, too, among her many talents.

“She was so talented, and had so many different talents,” said Rudner, a Las Vegas headliner for more than a decade who currently performs her stand-up act at the Venetian. “I’ve actually bought one of her paintings, and I also have one of her cookbooks. She designed jewelry and my friends have bought some Phyllis Diller necklaces. She did so many things.”

Primarily, Phyllis Diller told jokes at a time when the craft was practiced by men.

“She was an inspiration to all comediennes, absolutely,” Rudner said. “She was one of the first women who got onstage and talked about her life, but she was much deeper than that. She was very eager and happy to help anyone trying to get into the business, and I think it was because she was just so talented. She was very secure in her own ability, and that made it easier for her to help anyone else.”

The trailblazing comedienne died Monday morning in Los Angeles. The woman who forever joked about her age was 95.

Kathleen Dunbar was also inspired by Diller, an omnipresent figure on variety and talk shows. As a child, Dunbar had no inclination she would want to tell jokes for a living — until she saw Diller doing just that.

“I saw her on TV when I was a little girl, and she was just so silly and had such a strong attitude, it inspired me to go into stand-up,” said Dunbar, one of Las Vegas’ busiest club comics over the past decade. “She was so steadfast in her convictions, and the way she made fun of herself and her family. She just had a way of talking that showed she was having fun talking. That’s what I got from her.”

Dunbar was pursuing her dream of working as a full-time comic when she moved to Vegas from Milwaukee in 2002. That week, Diller announced she was retiring from live performance.

“When I heard that, I cried,” Dunbar said during a phone interview Monday afternoon. “I don’t know how to explain it. I was trying to make my move as a comic in the big city, and all of a sudden one of my heroes isn’t doing it anymore. I never was able to see her perform live, and I really regret that.”

Diller was a frequent Las Vegas headliner who once said she played “every major room” in the city. Her Vegas performances spanned November 1964, when she made her debut at the Flamingo, through May 2002. Her retirement performance played out at the Suncoast Showroom, and was chronicled by filmmaker Gregg Barson for documentary “Goodnight, We Love You.”

“I was a huge fan of her, and I stopped in my tracks whenever I saw her on TV,” Barson said Monday during a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was about to tape an interview for NBC’s “Today” show. “I’m a huge comedy fan, and I’d read in the L.A. Times that she was retiring. I thought, ‘Wow, this would be great for a film.’ ”

Barson’s wife is casting director Julie Ashton. She pitched Diller the idea of making an artsy film about her final show, a concept which proved an easy sell, and her sendoff performance at Suncoast (where she appeared with magician Mercer Helms) was the centerpiece of Barson’s well-received documentary.

“We had this one moment that I remember very well, where we were in her dressing room, and I wanted her to take her wig off,” Barson said. “She had never been seen without it, and she had very short, cropped hair. This was before that final show. She was living in the moment and did this for a few seconds for the movie.”

After thoughtful consideration, Barson opted not to use the scene.

“I didn’t want to ruin the illusion people had of her, that iconic image of her in that wild wig,” Barson said. “So I was the one who said no, but she wanted to do it, for the art.”

Jerry Lewis was in the audience that night, watching a woman he truly admired. A few years later Barson wound up directing a documentary about Lewis, too, whom he met while working with Diller.

Lewis has not always been kind to female comics (to put it diplomatically), but on Monday spoke briefly of Diller, saying, “The world is less terrific without her. I have always been a fan.”

Venerable impressionist Rich Little, who has just extended his run in his one-man show, “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” through Oct. 3 at LVH’s Shimmer Cabaret, described Diller as “Queen of the one-liners.”

“She was an original. There was nobody else like her,” said Little, who met Diller in the mid-1960s when the comics were double-billed at the Sands. “She had a joke for every subject. Milton Berle was that way, and so was Bob Hope. It was just one one-liner after another, and it’s the kind of comedy that isn’t in vogue anymore.

“But when she walked onstage she was larger than life, with the long cigarette holder and that cackling laugh … she was the first comic I saw where you could say, ‘She looks like she put her finger in a light socket,’ and that was just the response she was looking for.”

Little and Barson both recalled that Diller’s sense of humor off-stage was as sharp as it was when she was under the lights.

“She was the same off-stage as she was on, and she was always funny,” Little said. “(Don) Rickles is very different off-stage – a lot of comics are – but Phyllis was always funny, like she was in her act.”

Barson said, “She is the funniest woman I’ve ever met.”

One of Diller’s final projects was an appearance in the 2005 film “The Aristocrats,” co-produced by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Dozens of comics appeared in the film, including Diller, telling a version of a joke with the same beginning and end, but a middle section that is always improvised. Diller attended the Las Vegas premiere of the film during the CineVegas Film Festival.

Jillette said he and Diller were kindred spirits.

“I think the fact that she was a hardcore atheist caused us to hit it off wonderfully,” Jillette said during a phone interview Monday. “I think that was disclosed in the first sentences we said to each other … I don’t know that I would call her a closet atheist, because it was known by those who were close to her, her friends and family (Jillette conducted a radio interview with Diller in September 2006, which can be downloaded from gpodder.net).”

Jillette was particularly fond of Diller because she was his mother's favorite entertainer, and added, “Phyllis blazed the trail that (Sarah) Silverman and (Amy) Schumer followed. You might not have had Joan Rivers if it weren’t for Phyllis Diller. She was putting herself down and being funny about it at the same time that Bob Hope, who was the most powerful man in show business, was doing the same thing. She was competing at the highest level and succeeding where no woman had ever succeeded.”

Barson was asked to recall the moment from his documentary that would be most emblematic of Diller’s career.

“The final walk-off from the stage,” he said. “The crowd had given her this thunderous standing ovation, and we followed her down the ramp, backstage, to her dressing room. She still had her mic on, and there was this final solitary moment with her, and then the door closes — bang! And that’s how the movie ended.

“We couldn’t have said it any better.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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