STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Phyllis Diller was a trailblazer for female comics. She inspired future generations of funny women, including Jen Childs, who brings “A Tribute to Phyllis Diller” to Act II Playhouse. The show is part of Act II’s Summer Fling series in July.
Diller, who performed on the stage and screen as well as the comedy circuit, is known for her eccentric stage persona, self-deprecating humor, wild hair and clothes, and her exaggerated, cackling laugh. She is infamous for her one-liners, quips like “I’m at an age where my back goes out more than I do.”
Childs’ “Tribute” includes skits, jokes, and songs, both original and classic material, including writing from Diller’s autobiography “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.” The performance, featuring Childs and Mary Martello, also includes letters exchanged between Childs and the late comedienne.
How they met: At her own company, 1812 Productions, which is the only professional theater company in the country dedicated to comedy, Childs was working on a show about the history of women in comedy. She believes that Diller plays a huge role in that history, so she wrote to Diller and asked if she could interview her. Diller basically invited Childs to stop by her California home, so she did.
“I flew out and met with her and had champagne with Phyllis Diller,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “It was indescribable. More than anything, I was so nervous, but once you’re in there, she put me so at ease. She’s a regular person. She’s accessible.”
The two wrote letters back and forth for about two years. Childs would ask her questions and Diller would answer. After Diller died at the age of 95 in 2012, Childs decided to do a tribute to her and created the show because she should be honored for her contribution to comedy and culture.
“No women were doing stand-up comedy with no singing before she did it,” Childs said. “If you were a woman and beautiful, you were a singer or a singing comedian. She was the first to do it and wrote her own material. She really paved the way for a lot of people to follow.”
Childs believes the look Diller created was all a part of her self-deprecating style.
“Her wigs, her persona — it all was very calculated,” she said.
For instance, Diller was voluptuous, but would bind her chest so she could do flat chest jokes. She wore boots that made her legs look thinner so she could talk about her chicken legs.
Those facts and others surprised Childs during the writing process for the tribute show. Not many people know, for instance, that the comedienne was also a classically-trained pianist who played Carnegie Hall.
One of the great challenges in writing the piece was deciding what to leave out.
“She had so much good stuff,” Childs said.
And it was consistent, even as she moved from classic stand-up in the past to more recently voicing characters in animated kid flicks like “A Bug’s Life.”
“She maintained her point of view throughout her life. She found new ways of expressing it,” Childs said. “She found other ways to let her zany out. She updated her material for more contemporary times.”
The show doesn’t feature “straight up imitations,” Childs said, but the two women on stage instead evoke the comedy legend. Childs will do Diller’s laugh and imitate her a bit, though.
“Her voice and delivery really help to land her jokes,” she said.
Childs hopes fans of Diller and fans of comedy in general will come to see the show. She thinks everyone will enjoy it.
“If you already love her, you’ll fall more in love with her,” she said. “If you don’t know her, you’ll laugh yourself silly and gain more appreciation.”
Act II’s artistic director Tony Braithwaite thinks the audiences will go nuts for it, he said via email.
“Jen is my dear friend, my frequent collaborator, and a killer performer,” he wrote. “She’s crafted, along with Mary Martello, a charming, accessible, hilarious tribute.”
IF YOU GO
What: A Tribute to Phyllis Diller
When: July 23-26
Where: Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler.
Info.: Call (215) 654-0200 or visit www.act2.org to learn more about this and the other Summer Fling productions.