"When I realized I looked like Olive Oyl and wanted to look like Jean Harlow, I knew something had to be done," she once said. "From 12 on, the only way to handle the terror of social situations was comedy — break the ice, make everybody laugh. I did it to make people feel more relaxed, including myself."
After high school, she studied music and voice at a conservatory in Chicago, then met 24-year-old Sherwood Diller at Bluffton College in Ohio.
They eloped in 1939, she dropped out of school and they settled into married life in Bluffton.
During World War II, they moved to Ypsilanti, Mich., where Sherwood worked at a B-24 bomber plant. In 1945, he transferred to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.
Over the next 10 years, Sherwood Diller held a string of jobs while Phyllis raised their five children. But with job changes and frequent unemployment, times were tough.
To help support her family, Phyllis worked as the women's editor at a small newspaper, an advertising copy writer for an Oakland department store and later an Oakland radio station. From there, she became director of promotion and marketing at KSFO, San Francisco's top radio station.
All the while, Diller had amused friends at parties with her jokes about household drudgery. She was so good that her husband began pushing her to become a professional comic.
"It took two years of nagging by my husband to get me onto that stage," she told Nachman.
In a 1982 Los Angeles Times interview, she recalled finally "throwing caution to the wind."
"I sat down, called the Red Cross and said, 'I have an act. Where do you want it?' They sent me to the veterans hospital at the Presidio, where I pushed a piano into a room that had four guys in it. I played, sang, told jokes while they yelled, 'Leave us alone; we're already in pain!'"
But spurred on by her husband, Diller forged ahead.
After auditioning at the Purple Onion, she opened at the small San Francisco club on March 7, 1955.
When she first started, Diller told United Press International in 1984, "I looked like the woman next door. I mean, I was just anybody, and on stage that just doesn't work. My opening night I wore a cotton dress. I had brown hair — pullleassse."
She then broke into her infectious, trademark laugh.
"So, little by little, I learned," she said. "Making myself a blond was the first step. I started dressing more theatrically, and then I realized I couldn't make body jokes if they could see my actual figure because I had a good figure. That got me to those little dresses, and then later I designed my funny boots and gloves. I had to wear gloves because all clowns wear gloves."
The famous hairdo, she said, was an accident.
"I had gotten into so much trouble bleaching my hair myself that I had to go to a scalp clinic, and they gave me this comb and said brush the top of your head for circulation. My hair was standing straight up after that, but I was so busy I'd forgotten to put it back down when I'd go out on interviews for jobs. But it worked."
After her record 89-week run at the Purple Onion, Diller honed her act on the road.
"It's all about structure," she said of her comedy success in a 1998 interview with theChicago Sun-Times. "If there's one thing I can do, it's write a joke. Too many comics today ramble. By the time they get to the punch line, the audience has either gone to sleep, gone to the bathroom or gone to bed."
She rose swiftly up the show business ladder, appearing as a contestant on Groucho Marx's TV quiz show "You Bet Your Life" in 1958, the same year she made the first of numerous appearances on"The Tonight Show" with Jack Paar.