Good comedians make being funny seem effortless. But like any craft, comedy must be honed through relentless practice, organization, and planning. Today we open a new exhibition featuring a “gag file” filled with over 50,000 jokes belonging to comedian Phyllis Diller. The joke cards are annotated, organized, and documented with a rigor that would please the most diligent of librarians.
Phyllis Diller became a household name in the 1950s and 60s as a stand-up comedian and television personality. Wearing wacky wigs, spangled boots, and a fake cigarette, Diller poked holes in American society’s image of the good housewife.
Diller’s utilitarian gag file stands in marked contrast to the zany persona she created, as represented by one of her signature “fright wigs”. Designing the exhibition, we knew that this amazing document of her work would not be enough to capture Diller’s comedic prowess. So we’ve included video that lets you see how she transformed the jokes on the cards into a performance and a persona that has captivated and delighted Americans for decades. Diller’s unique laugh, energy, and personality provided the alchemy that created amazing comedy out of these carefully constructed and thought-out elements.
Diller paved the way for generations of female comedians to follow, from Joan Rivers, to Margaret Cho, to Ellen DeGeneres. You can see her gag file on view until November in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery on the 2nd floor west.
Do you have a favorite Phyllis Diller performance? Who do you think have been the most influential female comedians?
Megan Smith is an Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History.