There's often a certain ugliness to humor, especially the sort that shocks a little bit before evoking peals of laughter. And maybe that's why Phyllis Diller, who died this week at 95, was so successful at a time when women were not welcomed in the world of stand-up comedy.
Diller was not, actually, ugly. But she made herself into a caricature of the overly made-up, crass, wild-haired fashion victim whose self-deprecating manner made her on-stage shrew-like demeanor look comical instead of irritating. And it was necessary for women to achieve an affected ugliness to be considered funny. Joan Rivers—who, underneath the make up and crudeness is quite an attractive woman—was in the same mold.
What Diller did was pave the way for a whole slew of female comediennes and comic actresses. And eventually, these women proved they could be funny without being hideous—or were willing to sublimate their beauty if the role called for it. There's Joanna Lumley, the former fashion model who has been willing to utterly physically humiliate herself for a laugh, playing Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous to comic perfection. And then there's Candice Bergen and later Jennifer Aniston, who could play comic roles on television effectively without covering up their good looks.
There's still an inordinate focus on women's beauty, and it's not about distraction or art. It's about the threat of a woman having two kinds of power—the power to make people weak at the knees with their beauty, and then the extra power to do a great job professionally. It's one of the reasons TV foreign correspondent Lara Logan was so horrifyingly reviled after she was attacked by a mob while reporting in the Middle East—how dare she be so beautiful, then try to do a nonbeautiful woman's job? Be pretty, and leave the important stuff to the men. And it's why, when onetime presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann was portrayed somewhat unflatteringly on a newsweekly cover, the magazine was called sexist. What's sexist is the assumption that Bachmann would not mind being called crazy and uninformed, but would dissolve into a girlish puddle of tears over looking less-than-lovely on a magazine cover.
Beautiful women can be loopy and uninformed. They can be brilliant and brave. And now, they can be funny. Thank you, Phyllis Diller, for building the comedy bridge.