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Free to be Phyllis

by LINDA UEKI ABSHER

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.

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