Friday, November 9, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Phyllis Diller on comedy at the 92nd St. Y

Phyllis Diller used to joke that she had had so much plastic surgery that God wouldn't recognize her at the pearly gates. The groundbreaking female comic never met a nip and tuck she didn't like, but surely she would've been known in heaven as on earth for her wicked drawling jokes and her cackle of a laugh. And that's just the way she wanted it.

She called herself ugly, and backed that up with a closet full of fright wigs, garish makeup and shapeless dresses. But the truth was that she was so good-looking that Playboy canceled her 1960s gag centerfold when the photos came back. She said the editors found her too sexy for the feature to work. And when Diller died earlier this year at age 95, Joan Rivers tweeted that "The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny."

Diller went to work as a comic at her first husband's urging, hoping that comedy would relieve the strain on their household finances. She started by performing at PTA meetings, local civic clubs, veterans hospitals and local radio programs. She sang a little, played the piano and told a few jokes. She said later that she mined the Dear Abby column for material. Her trademark laugh arose during her early comedy club gigs, as a sign of nerves that she couldn't suppress.

In 1992, she spoke about her life in comedy at New York City's 92nd St. Y, in a rollicking "lecture" (listen to it here or below) that interspersed joke sets with her own views on death, religion, aging and happiness. Not exactly the topics that you think might trigger 12 laughs a minute (as was her serious goal on stage), but these weighty themes always found a place in Diller's act. "My definition of comedy," she told her audience, "is tragedy revisited."

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Learn from a comic, and vary your timing. Comics use timing in such a way that the tempo and pauses in a monologue work just as hard as the words themselves to get a laugh. In this lecture, Diller delivers rapid-fire clusters of jokes, where the laughs are simple but the humor comes from how many riffs there are in a row. She tells other, more subtle jokes with a long pause at the end, to let the funny sink in. And she deploys that laugh almost as a transition, signaling the end of a topic before moving on. Pauses and variations in your speech can help your audience follow your train of thought, even if you're not moving toward a punchline.
  • Stay flexible within your format. Diller admits at the end of this speech that she really isn't any good at giving lectures, and therefore she didn't deliver one. She can get away with making a stand-up routine out of the event because of who she is and what her audience expects. But it's a good reminder that there's no right or wrong way to give a speech. If you listen to lots of public speakers, you'll realize that not all successful lectures sound the same, and there's not one ideal model to imitate. Together with experience and practice, these observations can help you develop your own successful speaking style.
  • Watch (and take notes) and learn. From the start, Diller was almost scientific about her stand-up. She used a cigarette holder in her act even though she didn't smoke, because she and a drama coach she had hired decided that it gave her a funny posture on stage. Twelve laughs a minute was a metric that she derived after years of watching audiences respond to her act and others. Her observations also told her that jokes end best when the last word has an explosive consonant, like "pop" or "shot." Listen to how often she applies these rules in this lecture, and remember that these are the details she said she practiced every day while working.
One more glimpse of how seriously this funny woman took her craft: Here's a clip of Diller showing off her infamous "gag file," which cataloged thousands of her jokes during her 50-year career.

And here's the speech, audio-only:

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.)

Introverted speakers: Check out my November 27 workshop on public speaking and presenting for introverts. Registration is open until November 16 or when all seats are filled.