Her Other Forte: Comedian Phyllis Diller Was Also a Concert Pianist

Allan Warren, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1971, a promising concert pianist made her symphonic debut, her fingers flying over Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. But the concert included a few surprising notes: The pianist was a woman. She was 53 years old. She just happened to be one of America's most famous comedians. And her concert was like nothing the classical music world had ever seen.

Even then, the thought of Phyllis Diller embarking on a career as a classical pianist was laughable. Since the 1950s, Diller—born 100 years ago, as Phyllis Driver, on July 17, 1917—had been breaking ground for women in comedy, morphing from a prop comedian to a TV and musical theater icon. But even though a spoof of a classical concert was one of the acts that propelled her to fame, Diller had long since given up on her dream of playing piano professionally.

As a child growing up in Ohio, Diller trained as a pianist. In her comic memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy, she recalls her mother pushing her toward piano, and though she was "no Mozart," she took intensive lessons and imagined herself "sitting before a fabulous concert grand" instead of giving performances for a piano teacher and her sleepy dog. She even studied piano in college. But eventually, Diller told a reporter, "I decided it was too stodgy for me. So I gave it up."

Music filtered into her comedy repertoire, though, and when the Pittsburgh Pops came calling in the 1970s in the hopes of having her perform a stand-up routine with the orchestra, she stunned the representative by telling him she would perform on the piano, as well. It's safe to assume nobody from the Pops had seen her on TV with Liberace two years earlier, her fingers flying over a piece she'd written herself called "Phyllis's Fugue." Diller signed on for a show called The Symphonic Phyllis Diller, never suspecting that her concert career was about to begin in earnest.

The show was half-gag, half-serious piano performance. The orchestra would perform without Diller, but eventually she'd make a grand entrance as Dame Illya Dillya, a diva who took forever to begin playing. Dame Dillya wore an 8-foot-long train and opera gloves and performed a 12-minute silent pantomime aping the pretensions of classical musicians.

"During the musical prologue, I'd dust the piano, check the score, and look at the audience through my binoculars—it was a long preamble," Diller later recalled. Then she launched into Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. "Once I was into the music, I was serious," she wrote, "and many in the audience were more than a little surprised."

During her concerts, Diller played selections from Bach, Chopin, and other classical musicians. Over time, she earned a reputation as a solid performer, with one reviewer calling her "a fine concert pianist with a firm touch." Eventually, though, Diller tired of the brutal regimen and retired from the concert circuit. "It became drudgery, it was taxing," Diller told The New York Times. "I needed at least three hours a day of practice and I didn't have the time."

Though her concert career was over, her comedy career certainly wasn't. After retiring from symphonic work in 1982, Diller did stand-up for another 20 years. She died in 2012 at the age of 95—and while her comedy is rightfully her biggest legacy, her surprising skill on the piano is worth a standing ovation as well.

Mifflin Madness: Who Is the Greatest Character on The Office? It's Time to Vote

Steve Carell, as Michael Scott, hands out a well-deserved Dundie Award on The Office.
Steve Carell, as Michael Scott, hands out a well-deserved Dundie Award on The Office.
NBC

Your years of watching (and re-watching) The Office, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, have all led up to this moment. Welcome to Mifflin Madness—Mental Floss's cutthroat competition to determine The Office's greatest character. Is Michael Scott the boss you most love to hate? Or did Kevin Malone suck you in with his giant pot of chili?

You have 24 hours to cast your vote for each round on Twitter before the bracket is updated and half of the chosen characters are eliminated.

The full bracket is below, followed by the round one and round two winners. You can cast your round three vote(s) here. Be sure to check back on Monday at 4 p.m. ET to see if your favorite Dunder Mifflin employee has advanced to the next round. 

Round One


Round Two


Round Three


The Office Planned to Break Up Jim and Pam in the Final Season—Then (Smartly) Thought Better of It

Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski star in The Office.
Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski star in The Office.
NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly's relationship in The Office was truly a romance for the ages. Fans were delighted when, in Season 3—after years of flirting—John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer’s characters finally got together. But an alternative plan for the show’s ninth and final season saw the couple going their separate ways.

Season 9 saw one of the most stressful storylines the show had to offer when Jim took a job in Philadelphia and Pam struggled to take care of their children on her own back in Scranton, putting intense strain on their otherwise seemingly perfect relationship. In one unforgettable scene, a particularly tense phone call between the couple ends with Pam in tears. Fischer’s character then turns to someone off camera named Brian for advice.

As Collider reports, Pam and Jim's relationship could have taken a turn for worse in the final season—and the writers had planned it that way. As recounted in Andy Greene's new book, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, series creator Greg Daniels sat down with each of the show's stars before starting the final season to discuss where their characters would go. John Krasinski, who played Jim, pitched the idea of putting Jim and Pam’s relationship on thin ice. According to Krasinski:

"My whole pitch to Greg was that we’ve done so much with Jim and Pam, and now, after marriage and kids, there was a bit of a lull there, I think, for them about what they wanted to do … And I said to Greg, ‘It would be really interesting to see how that split will affect two people that you know so well.'"

Several writers weighed in with ideas about how they might handle a split between Jim and Pam from a narrative standpoint—though not everyone was on the same page.

Warren Lieberstein, a writer on the series, remembered when the idea of bringing Brian—the documentary crew's boom operator—into the mix. “[This] was something that came up in Season 5, I think," Lieberstein said. "What if that character had been secretly there the entire time and predated the relationship with Jim and had been a shoulder that she cried on for years?’ It just seemed very intriguing." Apparently, the writers thought breaking the fourth wall would jeopardize the show, so they saved it for the last season.

Writer Owen Ellickson said there was even some talk of Pam and Brian “maybe hooking up a little bit," but the negative response to the storyline led the writers to "pull the ripcord on [Pam and Jim's separation] because it was so painful to fans of the show." Ellickson said that they backtracked so quickly, they even had to re-edit certain episodes that had already been shot to nix the idea of Jim and Pam splitting up. Which is something the show's millions of fans will be forever grateful for.

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