Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Free to be Phyllis


After a long weekend, I logged into Facebook and saw this: “Phyllis Diller Dies at 95”

My heart stopped.  Yes, she was extremely old and testimonials from the past week notwithstanding, considered passé: clownish and sexless, mostly existing as a huffy foil to Bob Hope’s growls and golf club twirling whenever a European starlet in a bikini wandered within eyesight.   If you asked anyone about Phyllis before her death, she would have been described as a relic of the sixties, one so dated that if partygoer showed up dressed as her for at Halloween, there’d be a good chance everyone else would be perplexed by the short go-go boots and cigarette holder.

Now we have testimonials from the major media about her impact on women and comedy.  Too little too late, I’d say. But her death has crystalized something that’s been free-floating in my subconscious for weeks:  female comediennes of the sixties and their impact upon a particular subset of late baby-boomer girls, a subset I happen to belong:  not mainstream pretty, (at least according to shampoo/shaving cream/cigarette advertising triumvirate)  and  able to muster enthusiasm  to follow the trajectory dreamed of by my fellow fifth-grade classmates: tying my adult fate to a vague yet all-knowing and all-giving male—in other words, marrying a kind of Santa Claus but much better looking and devoid of the incestuous vibe.

What did I have to look forward to?  Not much in those days, except for one thing: Phyllis and her tribe on the tv.

I was fortunate to watch the career birth of these women on variety shows that dotted the television landscape:  Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, even  the then-naughty Dean Martin Show (mostly due to the fact I was fortunate to have parents too pre-occupied to monitor my viewing habits).  I watched them obsessively:  usually a foot shorter than the ubiquitous Golddiggers, the back-up dancers who cooed and caressed the male guest stars, theese women were dumpy but witty contrasts against a background of glittering cleavage and legs.  I was thrilled: they were funny women who weren’t beautiful.

Planting themselves smack in the center of the stage, they twirled and mugged, flaunting outré getups:  Phyllis with shock-treatment hair and clothes; Totie Fields in ridiculously bejeweled baby-doll dresses; and Joan Rivers, hair bouffanted to the height of the stage lights, moaning about her inability to land a date.  Delivering jokes in a speed akin to assault rifles, they plowed through routines dishing about flat chests, unremarkable lovers, and laissez-faire housekeeping habits.  After their three-minute routines, they stuck to their schticks, flinging one-liners to the host and everyone within range, as if they were trying to beat the men in black tie and cool personas in the race to make fun of themselves. The audiences loved every minute of it.

To the ten-year old me, the fact these women not only existed but were starring on television meant I had a future.  Not knowing their back stories, all I had to go on is what I saw on the black-and-white glowing box in front of me:  no men and no looks but  lightning-fast minds.  Not that I saw myself at the time as brilliant or even funny, but smartness seemed more achievable than beauty or sexual allure.  That was my first realization I could actually make it in this world.

I wish I could end with a  eureka moment illustrating how revelatory these women were in my impressionable elementary-school mindset, but the closest image I can come up with is locusts–they were dormant locusts, buried deep in the midst of a jumble Top-40 tunes, slam books and mystifying newscasts about a war happening a thousand miles away.  But coming of age in an era of Erica Jong and Free to Be…You and Me, their memory buzzed around the edges of my pop-culture consciousness, goading me to do more than just find a hot-looking Santa Claus for a life.

LINDA UEKI ABSHER is the creator of The Lipstick Librarian!  web site.  She works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Qaddafi
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Winslow Myers
Christopher Brauchli
Wonder Woman at the UN
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
Lee Ballinger
Tupac: Holler If You Hear Him
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”
October 20, 2016
Eric Draitser
Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Extreme Unction: Illusions of Democracy in Vegas
Binoy Kampmark
Digital Information Warfare: WikiLeaks, Assange and the US Presidential Elections
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Bogus History Lesson
Bruce Mastron
Killing the Messenger, Again
Anthony DiMaggio
Lesser Evil Voting and Prospects for a Progressive Third Party
Ramzy Baroud
The Many ‘Truths’ on Syria: How Our Rivalry Has Destroyed a Country
David Rosen
Was Bill Clinton the Most Sexist President?
Laura Carlsen
Plan Colombia, Permanent War and the No Vote
Aidan O'Brien
Mao: Monster or Model?