Q&A: Phyllis Diller's Busy Retirement

After being introduced as the Madonna of stand-up, Phyllis Diller quipped, "The day I grab my crotch, it'll mean it's falling off. And at my age it could." You can watch her deliver that line, and hundreds of others, in "Goodnight, We Love You." Out on DVD this week, the documentary chronicles her last performance ever, in 2002, after 47 years on the road. She hasn't completely shunned the spotlight since then: she has a recurring gig on Fox's "Family Guy," and last year she appeared in "The Aristocrats," the documentary about what is supposedly the dirtiest joke of all time. A film about Diller's early years in show business is reportedly in preproduction with Patricia Clarkson slated to play her.

In "Goodnight, We Love You," we learn that she has launched yet another career—this one as a painter —which is fitting, since she was already a classically trained pianist and a housewife and mother of four in 1955 when she started doing stand-up, ultimately paving the way for Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne Barr. Diller, who holds the Guinness Book world record for most jokes told in a minute (12), recently spoke on the phone with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker from her Los Angeles home about retirement, plastic surgery and Michael Richards. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: This documentary is about your farewell performance in 2002, four years ago. Why did you decide to hang it up?

Phyllis Diller: I was 85. I don't think most people work that late. When it's fun work, it isn't hard. It isn't really work. But you can't be good if you don't do it all the time.

You're still working, though. You've appeared on "Family Guy."

Yeah, I have a regular ongoing part on that. I can't call that performing. Those cartoon things, voice-overs, are just so easy to do.

You say in this documentary that you really enjoy silence, which is kind of a surprise coming from someone who has a reputation for being so brash and outspoken.

Well, that's all an act.

Are you enjoying your silence now?

Oh, honey. In Brentwood [her neighborhood in Los Angeles], you know, you have real silence. It's so wonderful because no matter where you go, it's noisy. And I do love silence.

How silent can Brentwood be? You've got O.J. as a neighbor.

No, he was clear up the other end. God, that ass. Thank God Fox woke up in time.

So you still follow the news. Have you been following the Michael Richards story ?

I keep up on everything. He's making a big mistake of how to handle it. He should have just crawled into a hole and shut up. He's dragging it out and giving it a lot more attention in trying to get out of it. He's through. He could never come out of what he did.

Are you still painting?

Oh, boy am I painting! I have a huge art career going right now. It sells like crazy. My studio is right here, and I show the art here and I don't have to go anywhere. That was always my plan, to do something sedentary when I quit the act. This is it. I listen to Bill Evans when I paint. I thought perhaps it was going to be writing, but I was wrong.

You wrote a memoir, though.

I did. I had a ghostwriter and I made a terrible mistake. I used the title he suggested and it totally killed sales. "Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse." Killed it. I know it in my soul. And it was a good book.

In the film you didn't seem too emotional about retiring your act.

Completely unemotional. I think it's bad taste.

Well, after 47 years ...

Sentimentality is sloppy. I just don't feel it that way.

Your jokes were certainly unsentimental.

[Laughs]

Is that laugh of yours natural?

Even as a little kid I laughed like this. It just happens now and then. Once I've done about 18 jokes, I have to laugh.

People have pointed out that some of your jokes come off as a little corny today.

I know that there are comics, fellow comics, who would consider some of them corny. I know that. But if I love them, and they get a laugh, then corn is good. Corn as high as an elephant's eye.

You grew up fairly poor as a single child with older parents. What role did humor play in your upbringing?

Both my parents had a very fine sense of humor. I grew up in a house where a sense of humor was alive and well. I was beloved as an only child and they treated me like an adult. They thought of me as an adult.

Did they get to see any of your success?

No. They both died within six weeks of each other. I was simply a housewife with four children.

And then you became a star. Did becoming the primary breadwinner cause any resentment with your husband, Sherwood? After all, you based a big part of your act on him and called him Fang.

[Laughs] He was so relieved. Fang is a person I invented, a joke. But [my husband], the poor thing, he was just ill-equipped to be out in the world. He just got fired from so many jobs—lower-echelon jobs. He just couldn't handle relations with people.

So your career was a godsend then.

Oh, my God, yes! It was his idea.

Any advice for woman starting out or slightly older women looking into a career change?

I still insist that no matter whether you're a man, woman or squirrel, if you're funny you can make it. But it's very, very hard to truly be funny and actually make people laugh.

You've never been shy about discussing your age or cosmetic surgery.

No, it's all part of me. I had such great cosmetic surgery.

What did you have done?

Maybe 25 years ago I had some of my own fat taken from around my navel and put around my mouth.

Really?

You know ladies get those perpendicular wrinkles? I used to call them old turkey butts. I will say that helped a lot. Of course, you can't reject your own body fat. And that was the last thing. No botox, I wouldn't think of it. It paralyzes you!

Do you marvel at how prevalent it's become?

Everybody out here looks the same. All the ladies look alike! I haven't had anything done in many, many, many years. They go for tuck-ups and botox constantly. That's a mistake. I have one friend who's been such a beauty all her life and now she doesn't seem to know it herself, her face looks like a balloon. And it's ugly. It's too bad. She's still the same lovely lady, but oh my God.