August 21, 2012
Guests: Seth Rosenfeld â Phyllis Diller
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During the student protests of the 1960s, many activists suspected that the FBI was spying on them and trying to undermine their efforts. My guest, Seth Rosenfeld, has massive evidence that this was true at the University of California at Berkeley, the college that led the way in student protests and that according to Rosenfeld was the target of the most extensive covert operations the FBI is known to have undertaken in any college community.
Rosenfeld filed five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the FBI, resulting in the release of more than 300,000 pages of records about events on and around the campus from the 1940s to the 1970s. He reports that these documents show that the FBI mounted a covert campaign to manipulate public opinion about events on the Berkeley campus, it spied on and harassed students, helped force out the university's president and ran a secret program to fire professors whose political views were deemed unacceptable.
These documents also reveal the mutually beneficial secret relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan covering the years when Reagan informed on fellow actors through his efforts to suppress the student movement when he was governor of California.
Rosenfeld's new book is called "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power." Rosenfeld has been an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Seth Rosenfeld, welcome to FRESH AIR. We should just start with an explanation of the what the free speech movement was about at the University of California, Berkeley.
SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, the Free Speech Movement occurred in 1964. It was one of the first major campus protests of the 1960s. It was a nonviolent protest, and it was protest against a rule at UC Berkeley that prohibited students from engaging in political activity on campus. For example, if students wanted to hand out a flyer or collect quarters for the Republican campaign for president, they were prohibited from doing that.
If they wanted to hand out flyers for the civil rights movement, they couldn't do that, either.
GROSS: So there was a big protest. The campus police got involved, the police-police got involved, and why did J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, care? What was his concern about this student movement?
ROSENFELD: Hoover had long been concerned about alleged subversion within the educational field, and he'd been particularly concerned about the University of California at Berkeley, which was the nation's largest public university at that time and had been involved in the production of nuclear weapons that brought an end to World War II.
So he was particularly concerned about dissent and alleged subversion at UC Berkeley. When the Free Speech Movement happened, he saw this as further evidence of the communist plot to disrupt the nation's campuses.
GROSS: And he eventually was told by his agents that it wasn't a communist plot, that there were in fact some communists and some socialists who were participating in the protest, but they were kind of, like, incidental. They weren't leaders; the protests would have happened with them or without them. They were just, like, people who showed up.
ROSENFELD: Hoover instantly ordered a major investigation of the Free Speech Movement and assigned a lot of agents to look into it and whether it was a subversive plot. And they determined that while there were a few communists and socialists involved in the protests, it would have happened anyway because it was really just a protest about this campus rule. His agents repeatedly told him that it would have happened anyway, and it wasn't a subversive plot, but Hoover ordered further investigation and beyond that dirty tricks to stifle dissent on the campus.
GROSS: So two of the FBI sources within the university were a security officer and a vice chancellor named Alex Sherriffs. So was their relationship with the FBI legal or illegal? Was it legal for the FBI to be going to them and getting information?
ROSENFELD: It was legal, but what is questionable is whether it was appropriate and consistent with the FBI's mission. And as the federal courts ruled in my Freedom of Information Act suit, the FBI's investigation using Alex Sherriffs and using the security officer William Wadman to gather information had no legitimate law enforcement purpose because those investigations had turned into political spying.
GROSS: And what do you mean by political spying?
ROSENFELD: These were investigations that didn't focus on national security or violations of criminal law. They focused on what people were saying or what they were writing or who they were meeting with in regard to positions they took on matters of public policy. So essentially, it was spying on constitutionally protected activity, such as circulating petitions or holding a rally or going to a demonstration.
GROSS: I want to ask you about one of the people who at the FBI's request infiltrated part of the activist movement in Berkeley, and this is Richard Aoki. And you say he had successfully infiltrated several Bay Area radical organizations. I'm particularly interested in hearing what you learned about his not only infiltrating the Black Panthers but in supplying them and helping them get guns, helping them arm.
ROSENFELD: Well, at first Aoki informed on the Communist Party, then he focused on the Socialist Workers Party. And he did that for a number of years and established his credentials as a leftist. Then in the mid-'60s, he was a student at Merritt College in Oakland and he met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who were also students there.
He began to talk politics with them, and when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in 1966, they went to see Richard Aoki, and they asked him for guns. They knew that Aoki had a collection of guns, that he was a firearms expert from his days in the Army. Aoki gave them several guns, as well as firearms training.
The Panthers proceeded to use weapons in what they called community patrols of the police. The Panthers were very concerned about police brutality in Oakland, and to try and reduce that, they began these community patrols, in which they would follow police officers around Oakland and observe them as they stopped or made arrests of people.
The Panthers were carrying guns and cameras while they were doing this, and some of those guns came from Richard Aoki. But the Panthers later had a lot of problems concerning guns. They were involved in shootouts with Oakland police. At least one Oakland police officer was killed; several Panthers were killed. And by the end of 1968, 28 Panthers had been killed in shootouts with police around the country.
GROSS: So what you're suggesting here is that the FBI, through this informant, actually helped arm the Panthers.
ROSENFELD: What we don't know is what the FBI knew about Aoki giving the Panthers guns. What we do know is that Aoki was a paid informant for the FBI before, during and after the time he gave the Panthers guns.
GROSS: One of the things you learned is that the FBI did spy on Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the student movement at the University of California Berkeley, and they tried to sabotage him. What did they do to try to sabotage him?
ROSENFELD: The FBI saw Savio as a potentially dangerous person because he was a very charismatic leader. He was very effective in rallying students and, even more broadly, members of the public to the cause of the Free Speech Movement. Hoover tried to counteract that by taking certain steps that would discredit Savio by portraying him in news stories as an associate of communists and socialists.
At one point, the FBI designated Savio as a key activist, putting him on a list of people whom the FBI would attempt to neutralize through intensive surveillance and harassment. At one point, an FBI agent contacted Savio's employer, and sometime later, Savio lost his job.
GROSS: One of the things you did while researching this book was present the Freedom of Information Act files that you found on people to those people. And you did that with Mario Savio before he died. He must have suspected that the FBI had investigated him because I think all student activists suspected that, whether it was true or not. What was his reaction when you told that you'd gotten his files and showed them to him?
ROSENFELD: I should explain. I had some files that I was able to show Mario before he passed away in '96, but most of the files I got were after he passed away. But some of the first files I got showed that the FBI had investigated the free speech movement and attempted to discredit it, and when I showed these to Mario Savio, he was - he said: Well, we always figured that the FBI was spying on us, but we never suspected that they would attempt to disrupt us.
I also obtained a lot of FBI files concerning the president of the university, Clark Kerr, and when I met with Clark Kerr and showed him some of his FBI files, he was quite astonished that the FBI had tried to get him fired from his job as university president.
The documents showed that J. Edgar Hoover had ordered agents to leak information to members of the board of regents in an effort to convince him that Clark Kerr was not being tough enough on student protesters and that he had to be fired.
GROSS: Clark Kerr is such an interesting character in your book because as the president of the university, he felt that he did a lot to open up the campus to more speech. He allowed communists to speak on campus. He refused to punish people for dissident speech. But to the student activists, he was the establishment, who was not allowing them, like, sufficient free speech on campus, but to the FBI and to Governor Reagan, he just wasn't tough enough.
So he lost on all sides, like, to the left and to the right, everyone was against him.
ROSENFELD: Clark Kerr was the man in the middle, and he had done so much for the university. He is one of the towering figures in American higher education. He expanded the university, and he also developed the master plan for higher education, the system of colleges that's now used not only around the country but all over the world.
He also opened the campus to free speech in many ways, but when the student movement in the early '60s began, he was taken by surprise. He didn't expect the students to be as aggressive as they were, and he was not quick enough to more fully open the campus.
The Free Speech Movement was ultimately successful. It reversed the rule against students engaging in political activity on campus. Kerr later said he regretted that he had not acted more swiftly to lift that rule.
GROSS: My guest is Seth Rosenfeld, author of "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Rosenfeld. He's the author of the new book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power." And it's based on 30 years of research and five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits that led to the release of 300,000 pages of documents.
You write about what you learn from the Freedom of Information Act files, about how Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California, worked with the FBI to get the University of California at Berkeley President Clark Kerr removed from office. What did Reagan, with the FBI, do?
ROSENFELD: The FBI had been very frustrated with Clark Kerr for a long time. Hoover was very upset when Clark Kerr began to liberalize rules on political activities on campus. He saw Kerr as being too soft on protesters and maybe even a dangerous subversive himself. He tried to get Governor Pat Brown to fire Clark Kerr by secretly giving Pat Brown FBI reports about student protesters, and Pat Brown refused to that. He was a staunch ally of Clark Kerr's.
So when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1966, after a campaign in which he made the protests at Berkeley one of his top issues, Hoover welcomed Reagan as a breath of fresh air and worked with him to stifle student protesters and to remove Clark Kerr from the presidency of the university.
A few days after Ronald Reagan took office, he phoned the FBI, and he requested a secret briefing about student protesters, about liberal members of the board of regents and about Clark Kerr. A few weeks later, at the first board of regents meeting attended by Reagan, Clark Kerr was fired.
The governor didn't have the power himself to fire the university president. However, when he was elected, he was able to appoint new members of the board of regents, and that shifted the balance of power, and Reagan's board of regents fired Clark Kerr as one of its first acts.
GROSS: So this was not the first time that Ronald Reagan had worked with the FBI. Their relationship dated back to when Ronald Reagan was an actor. And you say that you learned from the Freedom of Information Act files that you got that Ronald Reagan informed on fellow actors far more than has been known, or at least more than has been known. I don't want to overstate it.
ROSENFELD: Yes, that's correct. Starting in Hollywood in the 1940s, Ronald Reagan developed a special relationship with the FBI. He became an FBI informer, reporting other actors whom he suspected of subversive activities, and later when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI had wide access to the Guild's information. At one point, the Guild turned over information on 54 actors it was investigating as possible subversives.
So the FBI viewed Reagan as an extremely cooperative source in Hollywood. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later.
GROSS: And what's an example of one of those favors?
ROSENFELD: The FBI did a personal and political favor for Ronald Reagan in 1965. FBI agents at the time were investigating the Bonanno crime organization. Joe Bananas, as he was known, was one of the most notorious mobsters in America and had recently moved to Arizona.
FBI agents in Phoenix were investigating him when they discovered that Joe Bananas' son, Joseph Jr., was hanging out with Michael Reagan, who was the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, and they reported this to headquarters.
The agents proposed that they should interview Ronald Reagan to see if he had learned anything about the Bonannos through his son. This investigation, after all, was a top priority. But Hoover interceded. He ordered them not to interview Ronald Reagan, and he instead told the agents to warn Ronald Reagan that his son was consorting with the son of Joe Bananas.
Ronald Reagan was very grateful for this, and I could read a piece of an FBI document.
ROSENFELD: (Reading) This happened in early 1965, just as Ronald Reagan was about to embark on his first run for public office, the governorship of California. And when FBI agents warned him that his son was hanging out with Joe Bonanno's son, he was very grateful. And according to an FBI report, Reagan said, quote, "he was most appreciative and stated he realized that such an association and actions on the part of the son might well jeopardize any political aspirations he might have." Reagan stated he would telephone his son and instruct him to disassociate himself gracefully and in a manner which would cause no trouble or speculation. He stated that the bureau's courtesy in this matter would be kept absolutely confidential. Reagan commented that he realizes that it would be improper to express his appreciation in writing, and he requested that the agent convey the great admiration he has for the director and the bureau and to express his thanks for the bureau's cooperation.
GROSS: You write that, you know, when Ronald Reagan was rising politically, there were parts of his past that could have been considered questionable because as governor, this meant, you know, overseeing the University of California system, which included, you know, atomic research laboratories and atomic research data. And so that's an important security position.
And there were a couple of things in Reagan's past that the FBI might have been concerned about if it was somebody other than Ronald Reagan. Do you want to discuss that?
ROSENFELD: One of the interesting themes that emerged in reviewing all these FBI documents was how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI used information. In the case of Clark Kerr, at one point he was a candidate to be secretary of health, education and welfare. So the FBI did a background report, and Hoover used this as a pretext to send President Lyndon Johnson a report loaded with allegations that Kerr had associated with various subversives, even though the FBI had already investigated these allegations and knew that they were untrue. And this all comes out in the documents.
In contrast, when Ronald Reagan became governor, he had to undergo a similar background check because as governor, he would be a member of the board of regents and have oversight of the university's nuclear laboratories. During this investigation, the FBI went out of its way to help Ronald Reagan.
When Ronald Reagan filled out his personnel security questionnaire as part of this investigation, he failed to list a number of organizations that he was involved in, in Hollywood in the '40s, organizations that had been designated by the federal government as being subversive.
Normally, this would send up red flags with the FBI. It would be seen as a serious omission. But in Ronald Reagan's case, the FBI did not report that he had failed to include these organizations.
GROSS: Seth Rosenfeld will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power." It's based on the more than 300,000 pages of FBI documents released through the Freedom of Information Act about events on and around the University of California at Berkeley, covering the 1940s to the 1970s.
When we left off, we were talking about the secret relationship between Ronald Reagan and the FBI - from the years he informed her fellow actors, through this time as governor of California, trying to suppress the student movement.
We're having some technical difficulties with the interview that I recorded. But I will tell you as we're waiting for the technical problem to be solved, that the 300,000 pages of FBI documents, most of them were gotten through a series of five lawsuits filed by Seth Rosenfeld to get the FBI to release their documents through the Freedom of Information Act. So he's been at work on this story for 31 years. So here's the interview.
Did you learn anything about how the relationship between the FBI and Ronald Reagan developed after Ronald Reagan became president?
ROSENFELD: Ronald Reagan's connection to the FBI begins in Hollywood in the late '40s. This was a time in his life when he was having trouble with his film career, his marriage was falling apart and his faith in the Democratic politics of his father were beginning to falter. It was about - right about this time - that he was first approached by the FBI and told that communists were trying to take over Hollywood. This greatly affected Reagan. As he wrote in his memoir, the FBI agents opened his eyes to a good many things. He made fighting communism his main cause. He became an FBI informer. He supported the FBI publicly in speeches he gave and in return the FBI did certain personal and political favors for him.
One of the arguments in my book is that Reagan's secret relationship with the FBI had a profound impact on his political development. And later as president he goes on to stare down the Soviet Union.
GROSS: So the information that's in your book "Subversives," and that you've been sharing with us today - and there's far more information in your book than you're able to share with us in one interview - this is a result of five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and 30 years of research on your part. Why did it take five lawsuits to get the files released?
ROSENFELD: That's a good question.
ROSENFELD: I first got interested in the subject when I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the late '70s. I was a writer for the Daily Californian student newspaper. The Daily Cal had requested some FBI files on Berkeley under the Freedom of Information Act. So I looked at those files and I wrote a story about the FBI spying on the Free Speech Movement and on the Vietnam Day Committee. They were published back in 1982. But I realized there was far more to the FBI's activities on campus. So I submitted a much larger Freedom of Information Act request. I figured I would get the files in maybe a year or so and write the story and go on to the next project. I had no idea that I was embarking on what would become a 31-year legal odyssey.
The FBI refused to release the files until I paid thousands of dollars in fees. So the first thing I had to do was filed a lawsuit challenging their refusal to give me a fee waiver. The law provides that when releasing the records would primarily benefit the general public, government agencies are supposed to waive the fees. So once I won the fee waiver, I went back to the FBI and asked them to release records, but they were producing it so slowly we filed a second lawsuit. The court ordered the FBI to expedite its release of the files. When the FBI finally released a chunk of the files, they were heavily redacted. So we filed a third lawsuit challenging the redactions in the FBI documents. The FBI refused to release a lot of the information on the ground that it concerned law enforcement operations or personal privacy. A federal judge looked at the records and concluded that they actually concerned - in many cases - unlawful political surveillance and efforts to get Clark Kerr fired from the presidency of the University of California. And the court ordered them released. The FBI appealed the decision and it went up to the federal appeals court. A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling and the FBI then filed a notice with the Supreme Court that it was challenging the appeals court decision. It was at that point that I reached a settlement with the FBI under which it would release the records and pay my attorney's fees of more than $600,000.
GROSS: That's a lot of money.
GROSS: Yeah. It wasn't pro bono, huh?
ROSENFELD: It was pro bono. I was very fortunate to have the pro bono assistance of a small army of attorneys. Under the law, the attorneys were allowed to request that the court order the FBI to pay their fees and the FBI did pay more than $600,000 in attorney's fees. But even then it was clear that FBI was still withholding records, so I filed a fourth lawsuit seeking records on Ronald Reagan. The FBI initially refused to release the records, but ultimately released more than 10,000 pages. This is the most complete record of FBI documents concerning Ronald Reagan in his pre-presidential years that's been released. These documents show that during the Cold War the FBI sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, by manipulating public opinion and taking sides in partisan politics. The FBI's efforts decades later to be improperly withhold these records from the public about its activities is in effect another attempt to shape history this time by obscuring the past.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
ROSENFELD: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Seth Rosenfeld is the author of "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power." You can read an excerpt on our website FRESH AIR.npr.org.
Coming up, we listen back to a 1986 interview with comic Phyllis Diller. She died yesterday at the age of 95. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: Phyllis Diller, one of the first and one of the few female comic headliners of her generation, died yesterday at the age of 95. We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with her in 1986.
Diller performed in the persona of a crazed housewife. She usually dressed in outlandish, bad-fitting clothes with her hair teased into a disheveled mop. Then she'd fire off long strings of self-deprecating gags. She's so unattractive, she used to tell her audiences, that Peeping Toms asked her to pull her window shades down. Onstage, she called her husband Fang. Diller told Fang jokes like her male counterparts told wife jokes.
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PHYLLIS DILLER: Fang, I got to tell you something else. The other night he was reading the obituaries and he said, isn't it just amazing how people die in alphabetical order.
DILLER: One of the kids asked him to spell Mississippi. He said the river or the state?
DILLER: I asked him to lower the thermostat. He put it six inches above the floor.
DILLER: His father told him to ride bareback. He took off his pants.
DILLER: He thinks a Royal flush is the john at Buckingham Palace.
DILLER: I told him we leak in gas pipe. He put a pan under it.
DILLER: Somebody wanted him to be a Jehovah's Witness. He said I didn't even say the answer.
DILLER: And now he's become paranoid and I know exactly how it happened. He went to the mall, went up to the map and the map said you are here. He wants to know how they knew.
GROSS: Phyllis Diller got a late start as a comic - she didn't enter show business until she was a 37-year-old mother of five, who had already worked in public relations at a radio station and had written a newspaper advice column. It was her first husband who suggested she try comedy because it appeared to pay well and they needed the money. In 1986, when she was 69, I asked her what her routine was like when she was starting out before she developed her persona.
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GROSS: What was your routine like?
DILLER: It was very different because I have no idea what I was doing, therefore I was terribly different. There were no female comics around. I was it. I didn't know that. But I had no precedent. I had never seen anything, except in what had seen on the days of early television, in black and white, like Milton Berle, Morey Amsterdam, Art Carney; all men. And there were. And so I was drawing on my background, my educational background. I did, I did the spoof of a concert - a classical concert. I started with Handel, went through German leader and I did the German and then I did phony captions, you see. I did a parody of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" by Gian Carlo Menotti and in my version her son had lost all his marbles.
I did Yma Sumac. At that time I had a very high voice, and my drum was an oatmeal box and I had it band on my head with baby shoes and bottle caps. It was madness. I didn't have any idea. I made fun of current high fashion. And finally, little by little by little I got material - little by little. I used to read Dear Abby columns and change a few words to make them silly.
GROSS: How did you start telling stories about Fang, the husband that you use in your routines?
DILLER: That was an ad-lib. I remember in the Purple Onion when I was searching for material, trying out new things every night and I had a bit about having had an accident in the car - his car, of course - and how I was calling home after the accident to tell old Fang face because the minute you're in trouble he's the, the heavy. And I worked on it and realized that I was on to something because this idiot that I portray on stage has to have a husband, and he's got to be even more idiotic than I.
GROSS: All the men comics of the period were telling wife jokes. Was this your answer to wife jokes, to do husband jokes about Fang?
DILLER: Not, not consciously. It's just you do on stage whatever is going to get laughs. I was just simply testing, trying everything out. I didn't do anything consciously. I just wanted laughs, that's all.
GROSS: Did people assume that Fang really was your husband and that you had this like absolutely crazy husband?
DILLER: Well, they still do.
DILLER: Every time I'm seen with a man, they say are you Fang? Everybody wants to meet Fang. Everybody wants to see Fang. Everybody is interested in Fang. They love him. I've built a monster.
GROSS: How did your husband feel knowing that people would assume that he was Fang?
DILLER: My first husband adored the idea of being known as Fang. He loved it. He had stationery made up with nothing but Fang on it.
DILLER: And he liked it very, very much. He, I guess it gave him some sort of importance, which he enjoyed.
GROSS: Did you keep telling Fang jokes after your divorce? Because as a celebrity your divorce would've been reported on all the papers and people might've assumed, well, she divorced Fang so now there has to be a new husband in her routines.
DILLER: Oh, let me tell you how serious that was. At that time Red Skelton, who was a, had become a mad fan of mine, as I was of him all my life, as a child even, he had contracted to do a Phyllis and Fang sitcom with me. And he gave - I- they gave me $30,000 of holdeo(ph) money. In other words, everybody wanted me at this time; I was hot as a pistol. So they held me till I could get it all together. During that period I divorced Sherwood Diller and they said keep the money and scrap the idea. That's how they felt. You see, everybody felt that if I divorced Fang my career was over. Aren't people stupid?
GROSS: Well, let's talk about the character you invented for yourself for on stage.
DILLER: Oh, how about her?
GROSS: Yeah. OK. Describe the way you will typically come out for a performance.
DILLER: Like a maniac, dressed silly with silly hair, funny little boots, little gloves. All clowns wear gloves - even Mickey Mouse. And I wear clothes, the little tiny short gloves and a little short dress and that's it. It's a funny persona. And this woman is an idiot, you know, she's a harridan. She comes out, she's telling everybody what's wrong with everything, you know.
GROSS: How did you develop her?
DILLER: Little by little by little. It's called evolution. Started out like the woman next door - brown hair, dress off the rack. Please.
So slowly you started to come out more crazy, almost disheveled looking. I mean, your hair would just be this teased mop on top of your head. A wig, I assume.
DILLER: No, that was my real hair.
GROSS: Was it your real hair?
DILLER: Oh, yes. Now here's the way that happened. I had bleached it for so many years when I decided I had to be theatrical. You're on stage. For goodness sakes, woman, don't look like the woman next door, look theatrical. So the first thing I did was bleach my hair. And I did it myself for time reasons and money reasons. I just stripped it, OK? I ruined it.
Now I decide I better save my hair so I go to a famous scalp clinic in New York and they gave me a curry comb and I'm supposed to brush it. And I had very short hair. See, they said now, lean over and do this. Well, I leaned over and did it between interviews and I'd be on television, my hair standing straight up.
And you know what? People liked it. It caught on. That's how it was invented. You see, it was an accident. I would never have thought of that.
GROSS: So you designed your own image. You designed your own clothes, too? Did you decide what to wear on stage?
DILLER: Well, you see, I used to dress pretty square, pretty straight. The first few years I wore actual - one year I wore Chanel suits. Another year I wore a Balmain suit. And they were satin and shiny and I realized I had to wear something shapeless or I couldn't make jokes about my body.
GROSS: Because your body was too nice?
DILLER: That's right.
DILLER: I hate to tell you that. So then I invented shapelessness and to this day I wear shapeless things so that I can tell them anything I want about my body.
GROSS: One of the things you've always done is laugh at your own jokes.
GROSS: And it's an incredible laugh, especially on TV. Your mouth opens so wide when you're laughing. How did you develop that? Because it's unusual for a comedian to do that. It's the opposite of Jack Benny, for instance, who'd tell a joke and just turn his head a little bit and look away from the camera and raise his eyebrow.
DILLER: Well, you see, at first it was nerves. I laughed because I was very nervous and probably subconsciously I was showing the audience here's where you're supposed to laugh. I don't laugh anymore at all in my act.
DILLER: None. Because to get 12 laughs a minute, as I do, there would be no time for a laugh.
GROSS: My guest is comedian Phyllis Diller. Was it kind of a novelty for people to have a woman comedian?
DILLER: Must've been.
GROSS: There were some other women comics. I think there's like Selma Diamond.
DILLER: But wait.
DILLER: She's not a stand up comic.
GROSS: She's done routines.
DILLER: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Look.
GROSS: OK. Go ahead.
DILLER: Wait. Let me explain. There are three categories.
DILLER: Comic actress. Comic. Now, comic implies stand up responsible for your own material. You work in one in front of a curtain alone. No props, no music. Comedienne might use props, costume changes, dancing boys, dancing girls, and probably doesn't write all the material.
Comic actress would be Lucy Ball, Carol Burnett. It's always written for them. It's a sketch, a movie, a play and they work ensemble. See, this alone-ness and just talking is what a comic is.
GROSS: It's important to you to write your own material. You've always written most of your own material, right? Had you ever thought about, you know, hiring writers, making your life easier? Had you tried that?
DILLER: Well, I do. I always have. Once I could afford it. Naturally, everyone would. Does.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So initially you wrote your own material.
DILLER: All of it. Now I write 60 percent.
GROSS: Can you think of a line or anything that really caught you as soon as you opened up the mail and said I've got to have that writer?
DILLER: The greatest line I ever bought was buried in five pages of single spaced typewritten copy. And it was buried in a form that no one in their right mind could use because it wasn't even funny. The way the fellow sent it to me, he was obviously young. And remember, there was five pages of garbage. But I read all that. And I found this line.
This line was - but here's the way he had it couched: A guy was in a gutter bleeding after an accident a cop kicks him. Isn't that awful?
DILLER: But the line - get the line: He lost so much blood his eyes cleared up. That's a funny line. Providing it's set up properly.
GROSS: So how'd you set it up?
DILLER: In my act, Fang, who's a drunk and shakes cut himself shaving, lost so much blood his eyes cleared up.
GROSS: That's good. Right.
We're listening back to a 1986 interview with comic Phyllis Diller. She died yesterday at the age of 95. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to the 1986 interview I recorded with comic Phyllis Diller. She died yesterday at the age of 95.
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GROSS: In your routines you do pretty rapid fire.
DILLER: Well, 12 laughs a minute is as fast as anyone can talk.
GROSS: How do you build it up? Is there a model that you have about how jokes should build and when the capper should come on?
DILLER: Oh, yes. The final word must be the joke word, must be the operative word. The final word should end in an explosive consonant. Like pop. Or park. Or kook. You understand? There are mellifluous words. Mellifluous is one of them. It flows. It's pretty. You know, it's one of those lovely words like lavender.
You want something strong and pop at the end. Like a shot. For years and years and years people likened my delivery to machine gunfire.
GROSS: Is there a rule of thumb you use about how many you can tell in a row like that before changing the subject?
GROSS: A sense of rhythm about that?
DILLER: You find that out by doing them. You have a whole - you want to do as many as you can on one subject because, you see, it's economy. You have one setup and then all the tag, tag, tag, tag, tag. You don't have to repeat the setup. Because every time you do a tag it has to have a setup. But if you could have one setup and then as many as possible lines.
But there is a limit to how many they will take on one character.
GROSS: Can you give an example of the setup and a few tags?
DILLER: Well, she's so fat that. That's your setup. And then you've got all these tags. Like sena-bada-dum(ph), bada-dada-june(ph), de-do-do-do-dun(ph). It's music.
GROSS: You recently had plastic surgery. Well, several times.
DILLER: All the time.
GROSS: All the time?
What have you had?
DILLER: Oh. Have you got an hour? I've had everything. I've had three facelifts. The latest thing I had that eyeliner put on, permanent tattoo. I had a chemical peel. I had a breast reduction. I had a tummy tuck. There's only one procedure I haven't had and that's liposuction surgery or lipectomy where they use a vacuum thing that was invented in Paris to suck out unwanted fat from places on your body where exercise doesn't effect.
GROSS: Why did you have all the plastic surgery?
DILLER: I was ugly. And beginning to look old.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well...
DILLER: Old and wrinkled and hangy.
DILLER: We're talking droop. Droop city.
GROSS: You never seemed ugly to me. I mean, you seem...
DILLER: Good. Good. That's because I was pleasant and I smiled and laughed.
GROSS: And it's because you had character. And, I mean, there's a difference between, like, the perfect nose which, you know, it's nice it's a perfect nose, and somebody who obviously has character and what you had was character. And whether you had the perfect nose or not wasn't really important.
DILLER: Number one, I couldn't breathe through that nose. One side was open because of an accident I'd had. But I went because of my chin. I saw myself on television and something was - I think it's called waddle. My chin was coming down. I didn't like it at all. And my eyes looked - I had circles on it. Not circles, puffs. Found out later that wasn't debauchery; it was fatty tissue. They plucked that out.
GROSS: If you had the perfect nose and lips and breasts and everything when you were getting started do you think you would've gone into comedy?
DILLER: Well, I did have the perfect breasts, the perfect figure, and my nose was crooked. Let me think. My teeth were crooked. Well, comedy is within. It has nothing to do with your appearance. My appearance helped because it was dysplastic. It helped. And then I made it help more by getting crazier and learning to be theatrical and things like that.
GROSS: So you have two personas, as you always did - one offstage and one on stage. And how are you dressing on stage now?
DILLER: Crazy. But chic. I mean, it's a satire of what is chic right now. That's the way I dress.
GROSS: Are you still talking about Fang?
DILLER: Oh, honey. So big in my act. He's one of my big numbers.
GROSS: Is Fang aging?
DILLER: Well, Fang is just Fang. See, the Fang things are he's stupid, he's drunk, he's dumb, he's an idiot, he never moves. These are the Fang things.
GROSS: Did you like wife jokes and how do you feel about them now?
DILLER: I think they're wonderful.
GROSS: You do?
DILLER: Oh, I think they're - I love jokes. I love comedy. I worked with male comics who - you've heard this. This is a classic because more than one comic I've heard say it. It's where he's married to the woman who's so neat, you know, so neat everything has to be perfect. And, you know, men don't like it.
The joke that I love - he got up to go to the toilet; when I came back the bed was made.
DILLER: Have you heard that joke?
DILLER: Isn't that wonderful?
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
DILLER: Can't you see this compulsive woman?
DILLER: Making this man's life miserable?
GROSS: The problem I've always had with wife jokes is that they always seem to be about the whole genre of women. Because there were never spouse jokes because until you came along there were no women telling jokes. So the joke was always on the woman and never on the man.
So instead of being jokes about married life or having this lifelong companion, it was always jokes about women, jokes about dames. And in that sense it seemed to put down the whole gender instead of, you know, talking about the tribulations of a long lasting relationship that men or women would have. Do you know what I'm saying?
DILLER: True. I know what you're saying. Well, and I did some good work, didn't I?
DILLER: I always have a cause.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
DILLER: Well, it's been such fun, Terry. I really love your show.
GROSS: Thanks. Thanks for being here.
That was Phyllis Diller, recorded in 1986 at the age of 69. She died yesterday at the age of 95. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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