Another in the MPI's Comic Legends series (the Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy collection will also be released), Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face is a collection of short segments from the 1960s ABC TV big-budget variety series, The Hollywood Palace, featuring Diller's famous, rapid-fire machine gun joke telling, along with appearances by several other big-name stars, including Dean Martin, Don Rickles, Terry-Thomas, Phil Harris, The King Family Singers, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. These monologues showcase Diller right at the peak of her comedic powers; the color, 60 minute Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face collection is a valuable look at the comedienne in all her glory.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review for a biographical documentary on Diller, called Goodnight, We Love You. My biggest complaint with that otherwise good documentary was the utter lack of archival footage of Diller in action. Well, here's the answer to that beef. The Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face collection captures the then-controversial comedienne spitting out one-liners about her face, her body, her poor housekeeping skills, her worse husband and her rotten kids, all in rapid succession and with perfect timing. Diller, a scourge to emerging feminists who saw her act as the epitome of the self-hatred that society supposedly imposes on women, was in actuality a feminist pioneer, inventing the genre of the female stand-up comedian. Her bits, while funny in their own right, also had a ring of perverse truth to them for women in the audience, and her ability to get away with saying what many in the audience were thinking, was quite liberating at the time. There were an awful lot of women (particularly that now-vanishing breed called "the housewife") in the 1960s who wouldn't have dreamed of speaking out against the institutions of marriage, and family, and the home, as well as having the nerve to poke fun at their own self-image. Diller gave voice to those women who may, at times, have felt their husbands were zeros, and whose kids got on their nerves one too many times, and who faced the prospect of a day locked up at home, scrubbing floors, only to watch those brats track in dirt on them yet again. Diller performed these monologues on TV talk shows, in night clubs, in movies, and on TV variety shows, such as The Hollywood Palace.
The Hollywood Palace, from 1964 to 1970, was a spectacular attempt by perennial third-place ABC to compete with the other networks by having their own big-budget, big-name variety show (obviously, the show was targeting the Ed Sullivan crowd). Quickly conceived and executed within weeks of the spectacular failure of the variety series, The Jerry Lewis Show (a legendary disaster that cost ABC millions), The Hollywood Palace was slotted on the schedule within weeks to take advantage of the staggering pre-production costs that went into mounting the Lewis show. The El Capitan Theatre, which Lewis had extensively (and lavishly) refurbished, was renamed the ABC Palace Theater, and a one hour, weekly variety show was pre-recorded there, to be broadcast later on Saturday nights, at 9:30p.m.. Each week, a new host would preside over the same kind of mixture of vaudeville, Broadway, film and television talents that Ed Sullivan emceed on his famous Sunday night show. Never a Top Thirty hit (people couldn't get a handle on the show, probably because it had a new host each week), The Hollywood Palace still enjoyed a solid viewership, and lasted six years on the ABC schedule (perhaps because so few of ABC's shows managed to get any viewers at that time). And on The Hollywood Palace, Phyllis Diller made numerous appearances, where she was a popular, big enough name to even host the show several times.
Diller's monologues and skits on the Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face collection are genuinely quite funny. Relying on rapid-fire timing, Diller just plows ahead with the jokes, expertly building on the same joke, topping it with each new variation, until the audience spontaneously breaks into applause at her skill. She's a real trooper; she doesn't dwell on the losers. If a joke fails, screw it; she's on to the next one without a pause. When the rarest of occurrences happens with a pro like Diller -- she forgets a joke here in one of the monologues -- the audience loves her for it, and applauds her even funnier recovery. While Diller had no equal when it came to a comedy monologue, she was less impressive when doing a skit with a co-star (that's probably why her attempt at a sitcom, The Pruitts of Southampton, in 1966, failed. She's strictly stand-up). This is particularly noticeable when she does several skits with famed insult comedian, Don Rickles. As anyone knows who's seen Rickles in action, he's equally adept at stand-up, as well as acting, so when he's doing a bit with Diller about a married couple, he completely dominates the sketch with his hilarious ad-libbing. Later, another sketch with Rickles and British comedian Terry-Thomas, shows Thomas could do the same thing, while Diller fades into the background.
Still, she's a marvel to watch, and when she's doing her stand-up, it's guaranteed laughs all the way. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge nature of the Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face collection does point out a problem that most comedians didn't have to worry about back when they performed on television: repetition. Back during the time of The Hollywood Palace, there were, of course, no VCRs or DVD recorders, and an individual episode of a show like The Hollywood Palace might have been repeated once. So if Diller did a certain joke in January, and then repeated it next May when she appeared again, chances are, the audience didn't catch it. But here, on the Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face collection, where her segments are stitched together from multiple appearances, we're treated to jokes and gags that are repeated several times - to increasing annoyance. As to the nature of her material, if you're at all P.C. minded - don't watch. Diller's material comes from a time when there were no such restrictions on what certain comedians could say, depending on their gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. Today, Diller's act might well come under attack from P.C. goon squads (who ironically - although they never see it that way - champion comics like Chris Rock, Rosie O'Donnell, and Margaret Cho, who insult groups and people who differ from them, with official benediction -- and absolute impunity).
Looking at the DVD box for the Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face, there's no mention anywhere of the original source material: The Hollywood Palace TV show. Likewise, nowhere on the actual footage are there any leftover indications as to where from these segments were culled and edited. I'm not sure why that is. Whether it's for contractual reasons, or because the footage may now be in the public domain (or perhaps the DVD producers just felt no one would remember the old ABC variety series), the absence of any context for the segments somewhat hampers the enjoyment of these skits. As a fan of vintage TV, I want to see these shows given the proper respect they deserve. While I would prefer to see entire episodes of The Hollywood Palace, the purpose of the disc is to highlight Diller. Fine, but at least give credit where it's due. Don't just slap on a new chroma-keyed title, "Not Just Another Pretty Face," and let it go at that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.