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Phyllis Diller's File Of 53,000 Jokes


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now, here she is, Phyllis Diller.



Phyllis Diller didn't get on stage until she was 37 years old. She became one of the first famous female comedians. Jokes were her livelihood.


PHYLLIS DILLER: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Would you believe that I once entered a beauty contest? I must have been out of my mind. I not only came in last, I got 361 get-well cards.


HEIDI ROTBART: She would write a joke on a piece of paper, and her assistants would type them up on 3-by-5 cards and then place them in the joke file.

SIMON: That's Heidi Rotbart, Phyllis Diller's longtime friend and producer. That gag file, as Phyllis Diller called it, is a piece of history, a hefty taupe filing cabinet filled with 53,000 alphabetized jokes.

ROTBART: And it just puts such a smile on my face because I was one of those assistants that typed those cards, and now it's at the Smithsonian. It's so cool (laughter).

SIMON: Before she died in 2012, Phyllis Diller donated many of her signature wigs and spangly dresses to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with that voluminous gag file.

ROTBART: It was filed according to topic. So you name a topic - dogs, cats, light bulbs, baseball, artwork, framework, presidents, Donald Trump - and you'd go to that file and there would be a joke. If she was going to some special event or a corporate event or the White House and she had to come up with a new routine, she'd go into her file.


DILLER: And now the most horrible thing that could happen to our house is on its way. His mother is coming to visit - King Kong with an overnight bag.


DILLER: She laid down on our hammock and uprooted two trees.


DILLER: If you get in an elevator with her, by God, you better be going down.


SIMON: Those jokes are now being typed and digitized by volunteers, one by one. Anyone can go to the Smithsonian's website and transcribe some of the 3-by-5 cards that hold the Phyllis Diller joke, many about her clothes, her hair, her face-lifts and an imaginary husband she called Fang.

Are those 53,000 jokes as funny when told by someone other than Phyllis Diller? Does the joke depend on the punchline of the joke teller? We asked two distinguished scholars of comedy and other arts to tell some of Phyllis Diller's jokes - Simon Schama, the esteemed historian and critic, and Teller, the usually silent partner in the magic duo of Penn & Teller.

SIMON SCHAMA: When we met, I knew Fang was the one for me, which is a terrible thing to say about anybody.

TELLER: If you look like your passport photo, you are too sick to travel.

SCHAMA: He's such a coward. We have a life preserver in our waterbed.

TELLER: Light travels faster than sound. That's why some people seem bright until they speak.


SIMON: Simon Schama and Teller sharing jokes from the files of Phyllis Diller. Maybe they'll go on the road. Kind of proves the point, doesn't it? It's all in the way you tell a joke.


DILLER: And, you know, of course they always say to Californians that we don't have seasons. Of course, that is not true. We have fire, flood, mud and drought.


DILLER: The ground dried up, and it was so dusty a tree went up to a dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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