Ethics Center: Reputation Management

Ha-Ha-HAAAAA: Phyllis Diller's Reputation Secrets

One of the measures of a celebrity’s reputation is what others say after the person dies. If the buzz on the Internet from critics and the public is positive, then it’s safe to conclude the celebrity had a strong reputation. If it’s negative, then his or her reputation was flawed. In reading the media commentary after Phyllis Diller’s death, one sensed that people sincerely loved and admired her. The trailblazing comic with the wild hair, frumpy dresses, and cackling laugh not only sustained a 60-year career in show business, she also created and preserved a sterling reputation despite (or perhaps because of) her quirky persona.

So what can business professionals learn from Diller’s career? How did she go about creating and maintaining such a strong reputation in an industry that often devours its most successful players? In our opinion, Diller mastered eight secrets of successful reputation development.

1. Believe in yourself and have the confidence to attack new challenges. Diller came late to show business. After studying music in college and then becoming a housewife, mother, and advertising copywriter, she began working in local radio and TV at the age of 35. Several years later, she made her stand-up debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion club, remaining there for 87 straight weeks. Hard to believe, but Diller was shy and didn’t want to go on stage. But her husband, Sherwood Anderson Diller, encouraged (read: “pushed” her) to perform. Diller also credits the self-help book, “The Magic of Believing,” by Claude M. Bristol, for giving her the confidence and courage to go on stage.

2. Create a bold and distinctive brand. Diller was one of a kind, especially during the Eisenhower 1950s. One can only imagine what people thought when she first started performing. As Time magazine wrote in 1961, “Onstage comes something that, by its own description, looks like a sack full of doorknobs. With hair dyed by Alcoa, pipe-cleaner limbs and knees just missing one another when the feet are wide apart, this is not Princess Volupine. It is Phyllis Diller, the poor man’s Auntie Mame, the only successful female among the New Wave comedians and one of the few women funny and tough enough to belt out a standup act of one-line gags.” Diller also assumed the character of the corner-cutting housewife, quipping that she buried her ironing in the backyard and that for Christmas, her family gave her an oven that flushed.

3. Go against the grain and do the unexpected. In 1950s/1960s America, being a successful woman was all about being pretty, sexy, domestic, a good wife, and a caring mother. To succeed as a stand-up comic, Diller had to play the part of an unsuccessful woman—scarily unattractive, a failure in love, and a disastrous homemaker. She realized that if she didn’t look and act ridiculous as a woman, the male gatekeepers would never give her a break. In real life, Diller was attractive, was married for 20 years, and had six children, but she “took one” for her career.

4. Work really, really hard. Diller was a gifted writer. She learned the craft as an advertising copywriter, then honed it during decades of crafting her own gags. “I'm not a comedienne," Diller once told Smithsonian magazine. "Comediennes may do other stuff, like acting or singing. I'm a comic, a hard-core stand-up, so I'm responsible for my own material." Over the years, she wrote some 50,000 jokes, storing them in a steel cabinet with 40 drawers. Those who worked with her attested to her writing speed, as well as her ability to hone a joke to a sharp edge. In addition to being a tireless writer, Diller maintained a grueling travel schedule, performing gigs for months on end across America.

5. Partner with others whose reputation shines brightly on yours. Diller collaborated with many of Hollywood’s brightest talents, including hosts such as Rowan and Martin, Jack Paar, and Jay Leno and performers such as Groucho Marx, William Shatner, and Bob Hope. All marveled at her comic wit, her appetite for hard work, her collegiality, and her refusal to speak negatively about others. Hope also loved her because she was a faster writer than he was.

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously . Unlike cruel comics such as Don Rickles, Diller never attacked others. But she did make fun of herself and her fictional husband, “Fang.” She joked incessantly about her bizarre looks. “I once wore a peek-a-boo blouse,” she quipped. "People would peek and then they’d boo.” She also joked about never being featured in “Who’s Who,” but rather in “What’s That?” Although her physique was trim and shapely, she came onstage wearing stiff, oversized metallic dresses, wearing high heels or boots studded with rhinestones, and sporting a bejeweled collar. Other times she wore a fur scarf supposedly made from an animal she trapped under the sink. But perhaps her most recognizable trait was her sinister cackle, which showed her audience that she loved the opportunity to tear herself down for their (and her own) enjoyment.

7. Follow your passions. Although Diller is best known for her comedy, she actually was an accomplished classical pianist, artist, and writer. She never thought she was good enough to be a professional musician, but she actually appeared as a piano soloist with more than 100 symphony orchestras under the stage name Dame Illya Dillya. She also was a talented painter and book author, penning an autobiography entitled, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse” and three self-help books—“Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints,” “Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual,” and “The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid them.” Whatever she loved, she dove into, learned about, and then excelled at.

8. Inspire others. Although Diller created a distinctive and positive reputation, she will be best remembered for inspiring the female comics who followed her. When Diller died, says Joan Rivers, “we lost a woman who paved the way not only for me, but for just about all other female comedians. She did this by building the first bridge between old ideas and new ones about what a female comedian should be.”