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Let’s appreciate the ones who make us laugh

Published 8:21am Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Phyllis Diller died this week at the age of 95. It made me think of laughter and people who make their living by making others laugh.

First of all, Phyllis Diller is no longer a household name and anyone under the age of 45, or thereabouts, might ask the question, “Who is Phyllis Diller?” Well, anyone who grew up watching television in the 1960s would probably know. I have no way of proving this, but it would not be too far of a stretch to say that Phyllis Diller was the country’s top female comedian for at least two decades.

Comedy is an amazing industry. Diller proved that it doesn’t take good looks or lots of money to get started. To say that her looks were only ordinary would be generous. Parts of her hair were aimed in all directions. Her sense of fashion was hideous. But, her sense of humor and her ability to relate it to people in an audience enabled her to be ultra-successful in the rough and tumble world of entertainment for 40 years.

She said about her clothes. “I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they’d boo.”

As for her looks, she said, “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I am featured in ‘What’s That?’” She also said, “I was the world’s ugliest baby. When I was born, the doctor slapped everybody.”

Growing older was a favorite subject. She said, “You know you’re old when your walker has an airbag.”

The greatest part of her act was that cackle that she called a laugh. She would come out on stage like something the cat drug up. She was constantly holding a cigarette holder that looked to be an entire foot long, even though she never smoked in all of her life. When she delivered one of her laugh lines, she would follow it with what had to be the most identifiable laugh in all of showbiz. And her laugh made us laugh.

It’s good to laugh. It’s good medicine, as in the old saying. That’s more than just an old saw. According to one article about laughter that I read, “A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.”

I haven’t asked my cardiologist about this but the same article said, “Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.”

I said that Diller was 95 years old. That’s not my generation, but near. Her death brought back many of the memories that I have of a profession, making people laugh, that has meant a lot to me. I like to laugh and there have been many people who have made me laugh.

Milton Berle, another member of Diller’s generation, made lots of people laugh with his slapstick comedy and its initial translation upon the medium of television. Uncle Miltie, as he was called, said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” I like the destination, too.

Phyllis Diller was quick to give attribution for her career in comedy to the great Bob Hope. He was pretty tame by today’s standards, but he shared 23 of his television specials and three movies with Diller and many other entertainers. The laughter that he carried to our troops throughout the world was a galvanizing effort that reminded them of us and us of them. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Hope.

Hearing of Diller’s passing reminded me, not only of her gifts, but of many others who have made me laugh. I have to admit that, just like musicians and actors and other genres of entertainment, most of the ones I liked have either passed on or are retired or not working much anymore.

I saw many on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed, himself, was pretty funny with the stiff way he moved around. Sort of like Mitt Romney. His variety show, though, always had a comedian. I liked Shelley Berman talking on an imaginary telephone. I think Bob Newberry did the same thing.

Victor Borge at the piano was really funny. Impressionists were a favorite and among the best were John Byner, Frank Gorshin, and Rich Little. They did the same voices, but they were good. Jackie Mason talked fast. Buddy Hackett talked out of the side of his mouth. Norm Crosby could never get his words right. We all laughed.

Here is a little tidbit about one of my all-time favorites. It involves The Ed Sullivan Show. On Sunday night, March 5, 1967, an act canceled and the show needed a replacement. It called upon a bug-eyed, stand-up comedian who “got no respect.” Who? Rodney Dangerfield!

I could never name all those great talents that have made me laugh. From Steve Martin with that stupid fake arrow through his head to Paul Lynde, another comic with a crazy laugh, to the hippie-dippy weatherman, George Carlin, to Bill Cosby, who could tell about his childhood better than anyone I know, I have been blessed with laughing.

I’ll end with an old Irish proverb. “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. No, that’s too serious. I’ll use a Woody Allen quote: “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

I hope you can find something to laugh about today.

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