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Phyllis Diller Interview

The legendary comedienne reflects on A Bug's Life, animation, and 50 years of television

Phyllis Diller's entertainment career dates back to the early days of television. A 37-year-old mother of five and advertising copywriter,
Legendary entertainer Phyllis Diller appears in a recent headshot. (Photo by Gor Megaera)
Diller gained notice while working at San Francisco's KGO-TV. From there, Diller discovered a new calling when she took the stage at the Purple Onion Club in 1955. Thenceforth, Diller was a comedienne. She performed at the Purple Onion for 87 consecutive weeks. Then it was back to television for appearances on Groucho Marx's quiz show and Jack Paar's Tonight Show.

The 1960s brought a number of new opportunities for the popular stand-up. Diller regularly turned up on game shows like "What's My Line?" and "I've Got a Secret." She graduated to film with a cameo in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass, got her own NBC sitcom and ABC variety show, spent three months starring in Broadway's Hello, Dolly!, and began a working relationship with Bob Hope, in whose movies and television specials she would perform for decades to come.

Most 1960s TV personalities have either passed away or faded into obscurity, but not Phyllis Diller. More than half of her 72 acting credits on IMDb originate from this decade and the one before it. She's made memorable guest appearances on such modern series as "7th Heaven", "Boy Meets World", "The Drew Carey Show", "Full House", "Even Stevens", and "Boston Legal."

The breadth of Diller's résumé multiplies when paying attention to the many parts in which she's been heard but not seen. Diller's voice acting work began with Rankin/Bass' 1967 stop-motion musical Mad Monster Party. In recent years, Diller's distinctive voice and laugh have been in even greater demand. Among her 21st century vocal credits are Peter Griffin's mother Thelma on "Family Guy", Jimmy Neutron's grandmother, villainess Mask Scara on "The Powerpuff Girls", and Mrs. Claus in the "Robot Chicken" Christmas special.

Perhaps Ms. Diller's most famous voiceover role is
Ant Island's Queen in Pixar Animation Studios' second hit, A Bug's Life. That 1998 film made its Blu-ray Disc debut last week and to help promote it, Disney arranged an interview with the legendary entertainer. Diller will turn 92 this July, having spent well over half her life in comedy, an arena for which she is credited as opening up to women, especially on stage.

UltimateDisney.com: You've done voice acting before and after A Bug's Life. Was there anything special about working with Pixar?

Phyllis Diller: Oh, very special. I fell in love with all the personnel at Pixar. Everybody was exceptionally nice and bright, starting with the top man, John Lasseter. What a love. And we had a lady producer on A Bug's Life, Darla Anderson. And it was just such fun. When you do a voiceover like that for a character, you don't have to dress up or put makeup on. You can just arrive in your jammies.

Phyllis Diller voices The Queen (left) in Pixar's 1998 film "A Bug's Life." Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Seinfeld" lent her vocals to Princess Atta (right).

Can you talk about The Queen? What did you like about this character?

I loved playing The Queen. Who wouldn't want to be The Queen?! With the crown and be the head of the country. And of course then we get into the real drama where we're threatened by the grasshoppers, who are much bigger and stronger and hoppier. Actually, when I watched the movie, I fell in love with Hopper, who's played by Kevin Spacey. He played the mean one, the bad guy in the movie.

I went along with the story and loved it so much and even to the point where at the very end when I gave the crown to my daughter, [Julia Louis] Dreyfus.
I lost myself in the story. I thought it was wonderful. Especially when all those show people came along and saved the day.

I read that before becoming a comedian, you were a copywriter. How did you go from one to the other?

I wrote funny things, funny commercials. I had an audition and I got that job. And after I got on stage, it just kept going on and on and on. Until it became a real good career.

What are your thoughts on comedy today? What new comedians and movies are you a fan of?

Right now, I'm watching reruns of "Cheers" and "Frasier." Because when these particular ones were on the air, I was still working. I retired in 2002. And now I can catch up on some of the things I've missed. Big fan of "Frasier" and that David Hyde Pierce and Frasier as the Doctors Crane. To me, they're very funny.

What is your most memorable experience of performing for television?

Well, they used to have all these wonderful variety shows and I was an eternal guest on the shows. Like the Bob Hope specials and Red Skelton, Carol Burnett. There were all those great variety shows and I even had one of my own. With dancing girls and boys and the band and the carry on. I loved all that. The closest we've got to it now is that dancing show, where it's live and it's got a lot of music and bands and that sort of things. It's kind of old showbiz.

Has television changed for better or worse in the fifty years you've been involved in the medium?

Oh, I think that the shows are running themselves out of this business where you use amateurs to save money. Where they're sort of amateur shows, where you pick a singer.

A few years ago, there was news that Patricia Clarkson would play you in a film about your life. Is there anything to report on this biopic project?

Yes, there's a lady that wants desperately to play my life.
Phyllis Diller records lines as The Queen, as seen in a voice cast featurette from the A Bug's Life DVD and Blu-ray.
She's a big star. But it's not good to talk about those things until they really happen. But it's not dead. It's out there growing legs right now.

What is the secret to your longevity?

A lot of people think it's probably the healthful life I've led. I always work. I think work is very healthful. A lot of those old-fashioned rules like "Get plenty of sleep" and "eight glasses of water", doesn't that sound dumb (laughs)?

Do you intend to continue lending your voice to animation, as you have been?

Yes, it's awfully fun work to do. They're always fun characters. And I am particularly interested in one cartoon -- I forgot the name of it, something about a father.

Is it "Family Guy"?

(Laughs) That's it! I play an old lady, Thelma, and I do love to do that. You know when you work with these people who do cartoon characters, they're always fun people and they're always writing fun stuff. And of course, that's my atmosphere. Fun fun!

And I hope, going back to your question -- is it getting better or worse? I just hope that comedy will reign! And I think there are some great new shows coming up. They're usually things like fake news. Where they go on and make fun of the news.

Buy A Bug's Life on Blu-ray Disc from Amazon.com
A Bug's Life is now available on Blu-ray Disc.
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Related Articles:
Phyllis Diller on Disney DVD: The Muppet Show: Season OneBoy Meets World: The Complete Second SeasonA Bug's Life
Recent Interviews: John Ratzenberger on A Bug's Life and being Pixar's good luck charm • Jason Dolley, star of Disney Channel's Hatching Pete
Other Interviews: Mary Costa, voice of Sleeping BeautyMargaret Kerry, model for Peter Pan's Tinker Bell

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Posted May 29, 2009. Headshot by Gor Megaera.