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Phyllis Diller: 1917-2012

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For nearly six decades Phyllis Diller delighted fans with her famous cackle and sassy, self-deprecating humor. Offstage the comedian kept her friends and family in stitches too. “She had a magnetic cockroach that she’d slide across the table when we were having dinner, and people would scream,” says her manager Milt Suchin. “That was her sense of humor!” Her pursuit of laughter continued until Aug. 20, when the 95-year-old died at her Brentwood, Calif., home. Says Suchin: “She had a smile on her face.”

As she always did. Born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, she married Sherwood Diller in 1939 (her first of two husbands) and had six children before going into showbiz at 37. “She was a stand-up comic when females did not stand up,” says Suchin. “She was a trailblazer.” Adds pal and fellow comedian Joan Rivers: “She really was the unhappy housewife. She didn’t like housework. One of her great jokes was ‘I love to serve chocolate cake because it doesn’t show the dirt.'”

A pianist, painter and saxophonist who poked fun at her penchant for plastic surgery, Diller found a champion in Bob Hope and enjoyed a long career, more recently voicing characters on TV (Family Guy) and in film (A Bug’s Life). “She was one of the first to do a solid hour in a nightclub with no music, no singing,” Rivers recalls. “She couldn’t sing.” For Diller, it wasn’t necessary. Says Rivers: “She just walked out and started talking.”