When Phyllis Diller announced a few years ago that after 47 years she was retiring her stand-up act, ardent fan and producer/director Gregg Barson wisely insisted on documenting the event. The result is "Goodnight, We Love You," a fascinating portrait of a comedic pioneer closing out on top. Barson's film weaves footage from the legendary performer's final performance on May 5, 2002 with interviews and historical perspectives on Diller's unmatched career.
While Diller's rapid-fire wit may not be news to viewers, the film digs deeper to reveal the woman behind The Cackle. Diller is a very precise professional, widely regarded by her peers as a serious student of the craft. Her self-created image -- the wild wigs, the poor domestics skills, the skinny legs accentuated by funky short boots, the stupid cheap husband, Fang -- it is pretty much all an act. One exception is the famous laugh -- that's 100 percent organic. (Another truth, apparently, is she's a menace behind the wheel.) In reality, Madame Diller is pure class, highly focused and exudes such sharp, clear intelligence; the word 'zany' seems miles away. She is also, it turns out, a whiz in the kitchen and has been known to whip up gourmet dinners even on the road.
Watching Diller perform is like being peppered by a Joke Machine Gun. As her son, Perry observes, "Mom rides the audience like a jockey rides a horse." She is actually listed in the Guinness Book of World of Records with highest number of jokes per minute -- one laugh every six seconds. Truly, it's just one zinger after another -- it's all you can do to catch your breath. Barson gives us a rare look at her massive Gag File, every joke Diller has ever written and uttered jotted down on a 3x5 index card and filed by category. Amazing -- the thing had better up at The Smithsonian or at least Fort Knox.
Plenty of gushing, sincere cameos from adoring colleagues in the biz, including David Brenner, Lily Tomlin, Roseanne Barr and Penn Jillette. (I could have done without Don Rickles, who is clearly past his prime -- exactly what Diller wants to avoid.)
Phyllis Diller is a woman of great joy and endless talent. Barson's film takes us into her beautiful Brentwood home where she has lived for the past 30-odd years. We meet The Dustbiters, a league of women who have all pulled duty as travel secretaries for Ms. Diller over the decades. During a Dustbiter Reunion, which Phyllis attends, stories are told and mementos shared, including a note kept from the late 60s. Phyllis had slid it under a dustbiter's door: "There is nude square dancing in Room 204 – leave your clothes outside the door. They will be clean and pressed."
"Goodnight: We Love You" reveals the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into such a stunning career. Every detail, every gag, every dress, every wig is conceived, written or designed by Diller herself. Her interests and talents know no bounds. The film also reveals an aspect of her career that few know about -- that she was a concert pianist for 10 years and performed with over 100 symphonies. The fact that she is now an accomplished painter is just another reason why Phyllis Diller is a national treasure.
© 2006 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 12/12/06
Goodnight, We Love You
USA - 2006