It was 1966. Ronald Reagan was running for governor in California. I remember riding over to the Sears parking lot to see him speak on the back of a flatbed truck. They did things like that back then.
I was 11-years-old and the 6th grade at Immanuel Lutheran Church, a private school. The school was having a book fair to raise money, which amounted to some books being scattered on tables in a classroom. That was the day I saw this book and asked my mom if we could buy it. She did.
I grew up watching legends of comedy, most from my parents era. Sure, the likes of Bill Dana, Bill Cosby and other modern comics were out there, but the Gods of funny were Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers…
But somewhere I had been exposed to the comedy of Phyllis Diller. The self-deprecating housewife with frantic wig and gaudy house dress, who held a cigarette in one hand and told jokes about her husband, Fang, while letting out a loud guffaw. Now, here I was at the book fair, with a book written by her and a foreword by Bob Hope. How could I resist?
I cherished that book filled with zesty one-liners. I read it, re-read it and studied it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was taking a course in how to write short jokes. Phyllis was a pro and, years later, I would find out that one of her writers was none other than Joan Rivers.
I recall that book inspiring me to start collecting jokes. I cut them out of Reader’s Digest and started a scrapbook. When our family added a typewriter to our family room, I tapped away and saved jokes I had heard or created myself.
A couple of years later, Phyllis Diller teamed up with Bob Hope again for a movie called “The Private Navy of Sergeant O’Farrell”. You bet I was there.
Funny that Phyllis, much like Bob Hope, lived such a long life. She passed away today at age 95, but not before making millions and millions of people on this earth enjoy a good laugh. I will forever credit and, perhaps, blame her for heading me down the road to writing comedy.