“I was born at home on newspapers. I have a story on my butt, but now the print is much larger.” – Phyllis Diller from her book Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.    Phyllis Diller and her traveling companion. In the late 1960s / early 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys had a wide receiver named […]

“I was born at home on newspapers. I have a story on my butt, but now the print is much larger.” – Phyllis Diller from her book Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse

 
Phyllis Diller and her traveling companion.

In the late 1960s / early 1970s, the Dallas Cowboys had a wide receiver named Lance Rentzel, who unfortunately became known not for his football skills (which were pretty good – he actually caught a touchdown pass in the Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field) but for his propensity for walking around in nothing but a raincoat and showing his wares, as it were, to young women.

Around the same time, I embarked on a three-week trip to virtually every major city in the country with Phyllis Diller, the legendary comedienne who passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 95. I was working for Lipton, the big tea and soup company who was launching a new, revolutionary product, called Cup-a-Soup, and who had hired Ms. Diller as their spokesperson.

The idea was for Phyllis to appear on all the local morning and news shows around the country and demonstrate how you could actually make a cup of soup in the time it takes to boil water. The joke of course was that Phyllis could barely boil water. I was working on the Cup-a-Soup marketing launch team and was picked to accompany Ms. Diller on the trip. Wow.

What is the connection between Mr. Rentzel and Ms. Diller, you ask? Well, Phyllis thought I looked like Lance – I surprisingly had lots of hair and bangs, as did Lance, and I was about his age. So she began calling me Lance in public from the moment we met. It could have been in the hotel lobby (“Have you met Lance, my traveling companion?”), across a restaurant (“Here comes my playmate Lance! I just have to introduce you!”), or on the set of a TV show (“Let me show you how good this soup really is! I’ll have my cute little bumpkin Lance here taste it!”). It made it even funnier that Phyllis was 30 years my senior.

Those three weeks were some of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever spent. Needless to say the trip was first-class, but what made it special was, simply, Phyllis.

She was without a doubt the funniest, wittiest, most clever person I’ve ever met. Her one-liners were simply amazing and non-stop. She was spontaneous, imaginative and at times quite devilish. In a good way, of course. And she was always smiling.

Quite a bit of her humor came from her “made up” family, as she called it, the key character being her husband “Fang” who became the butt of many of her jokes. She also had this self-deprecating quality about her, always cutting herself down for the sake of a laugh:

“I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek, then they’d boo.”

Phyllis wasn’t just funny. She could act, having appeared in movies (three with Bob Hope) and on Broadway, and she published two books. She was also a concert classical pianist.

More importantly, Phyllis Diller was one of the nicest and most considerate people I’ve ever come across.

A few weeks after our marathon trip, Phyllis was ironically scheduled to appear at a nearby club, and she was thoughtful enough to send tickets to the show. As she came on stage, knowing exactly where I was sitting, she introduced me to the audience as Lance, her traveling companion for the last three weeks, with a few giggles and cackles accompanying the introduction. As I stood up, she told the audience what she really liked about me was my wardrobe. And then, she held up a raincoat. The audience went wild. I of course desperately looked for a place to hide.

I managed to stay on her Christmas card list for a long time, and every one had a personal note. They faded away of course, as things do, but my memories of Phyllis Diller never will.

It’s been a long time since she entertained us with her boundless wit. It’s been a long time since she appeared on stage, or in a film for that matter. But I truly hope this great woman is never forgotten. In her honor, here are a few of her best one-liners:

“I realized on our first wedding anniversary that our marriage was in trouble. Fang gave me luggage. It was packed. My mother damn near suffocated!”

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

“Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room.”

“Housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?”

“I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’”

“When I told Fang I was going to have my face lifted, he said, ‘Who’d steal it?’”

“I was the world’s ugliest baby. When I was born, the doctor slapped everybody.”

“My body’s in such bad shape, I wear prescription underwear.”

If you’re not familiar with Phyllis, take a look at her stand-up routine on the Ed Sullivan show from around the time I met her.

What is it about comedians and living longer? Bob Hope and George Burns lived to be 100, and Phyllis 95, to name just a few. Maybe it can be summed up by one of her most memorable quotes:

“A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”

When I think of Phyllis Diller, I will certainly smile. I hope you do too.

Good night, Fang.

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