Baffled by why so many female comedians put on an ugly duckling act, Ashley Fetters recalls an anecdote about the late Phyllis Diller posing for Playboy in the 1960s:
Playboy's editors thought it would be funny, she said, and what better way to get a laugh than by sending out seductive centerfold photos of a hilariously tacky, impressively unsexy woman? It seemed like a foolproof plan. There was, however, one problem: Diller, who had long obscured her figure with the trademark ill-fitting lamé dresses she often wore onstage, turned out to have a shapely, sexy physique–and a pretty face, too, under all her clownish makeup. To everyone's bewilderment (except maybe Phyllis Diller's), Phyllis Diller was a bombshell.
Fetters, who hails Tina Fey as the heiress to Diller's dumpy schtick, believes there a "disturbingly simple explanation" to this theme:
"You can't have people look at you and listen to you at the same time," says Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, with a laugh. According to Barreca, young, attractive female comics in the stand-up industry have always been targets of sexualized heckling. Even today, "They still have people screaming at them, 'Take your clothes off!,'" she says, "or "'Shut up and show me your tits!'" Realizing this, Diller cleverly diverted masculine attention away from her looks by making herself ugly. "She took herself out of the sexual marketplace," Barreca explains.
Of course, at least with Fey, not everyone buys the act.
(Photo: Phyllis Diller and Playboy Bunnies during The Friars Club Honors Hugh Hefner With A Lifetime Achievement Award at Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California. By Ron Galella/Wire Image)