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Lost at the Smithsonian, Phyllis Diller and a book called, The Magic of Believing.

Recently, I listened to an interesting podcast called Lost at The Smithsonian hosted by Aassif Mandvi.

Aassif used to be a regular contributor to The Daily Show.

Of course, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex. With museums in New York, Virginia but mainly Washington DC-this institution houses over 155 million different items in its collection of artifacts, works of art and natural science specimens.

It’s the home to everything including a 3.5-billion-year-old fossil, the space shuttle Discovery, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, ancient Chinese bronze and presidential paintings – just to name a few items.

Aassif takes a look at some of the more bizarre objects.

He has taken some fun and funny items that have also achieved iconic status in their own way. For example, the silver suits that the Bee Gees wore during the disco era and Saturday Night Fever, Edith and Archie’s old living room chairs from All in The Family, Pele’s #10 soccer jersey and comedian Phyllis Diller’s old joke files. Now, as a fellow comedian, I found this particularly fascinating. Phyllis had over 52,000 jokes contained in a big steel cabinet. In total, there are tens of thousands of index cards categorized by subject and filed in forty-eight drawers.

Grant it, there are a lot of folks who don’t even know who Phyllis Diller was but she was a legendary comedian who paved the path for many female comics after her including; Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Rita Rudner and Ellen DeGeneres- just to name a few.

She was a comedian, actress, author, musician (she was a professional pianist) and she also did a ton of voice over work. Her trademark voice and cackle can be heard as the Queen in A Bug’s Life, Granny Neutron in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Thelma Griffin in Family Guy.

Phyllis Diller was one of the originals. Barbra Streisand was once HER opening act.

Diller’s jokes stood out on their own. Critics might think that her style was out of date, improper, rude or too self-deprecating but Phyllis got into the business at a time when there weren’t even any other female comics to share horror stories with!

There was no comedy how-to manual. She dressed up in tiny boots, gloves, outlandish wigs and smoked a fake cigarette just because she thought that’s what her ‘character’ should do.

The majority of cities, back then, didn’t even have comedy clubs. Comedians like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller has to try out their comedy at strip clubs. They would emcee before the dancers came on. Can you imagine how tough that audience was? Patrons didn’t want to see a woman unless she was taking her clothes off. The rapid machine gun set up and punchline delivery was the only way comedians survived on those stages.

Here are a few of Phyllis’s one-liners:

‘My photographs don’t do me justice. They look just like me.’

‘Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room.’

‘When God was handing out chins, I thought he said gin. I said, ‘make mine a double.’

What I didn’t know about Ms.Diller is that she had a pretty rough upbringing.

She was married a number of times. She had five children. One of them had special needs.

At one point, Phyllis and her husband and their five kids were living out of shopping bags as they moved from one location to the next.

Her husband told her that she should try her hand at stand-up comedy because everyone told her that she was a funny person. Can you imagine getting into stand-up comedy because you needed to support your homeless family?

But Phyllis was funny. She quickly rose through the ranks and started to play big rooms and guest starred on sitcoms and game shows.

Many female comedians today owe Phyllis Diller a giant thank you for kicking the doors wide open.

As I mentioned earlier, Phyllis had a tough start in the beginning but one of things that inspired and kept her going was a book that she read over and over again for two years called; “The Magic of Believing” by author Claude Bristol.

Bristol lived between 1891-1951. He worked for nearly forty years as a newspaper reporter and editor. After serving in the first world war, he became an advocate for the rights of veterans, who he believed could better attain success in civilian life by harnessing the powers of the mind. Here’s one of his quotes:

You are the product of your own thoughts. What you believe yourself to be, you are.” “Thought attracts that upon which it is directed.” “Thought is the original source of all wealth, all success, all material gain, all great discoveries and inventions, and of all achievement.

Nowadays, we might categorize him as just another ‘positive thinking’ guru but back then he was one of the original writers and thinkers! And yes, comedian Phyllis Diller attributed many of her successes to his philosophies. Angela Lansbury was another celebrity who touted the teachings of Claude Bristol.

Whether it was self-motivation, grit, determination, a positive attitude or pure raw talent,

Phyllis Diller achieved fame and fortune at a time that was unheard of.

‘I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.’

‘I admit, I have a tremendous sex drive. My boyfriend lives forty miles away.’

She broke the mold and laughed and cackled all the way to the bank.

Thank you, Phyllis, for showing so many female comics the way!

If you would like to catch up on any of my other Laugh Long and Prosper episodes, voted one of the best podcasts of 2021 in Canada by CTV, check me out.

Until next time folks, Laugh Long and Prosper!


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Wayne Gretsky – Hockey and Humour