In 1966, Phyllis Diller was a hot new talent, in demand for any show she could do her stand up on, from the Tonight Show, to the Hollywood Palace. She became a fixture in the Bob Hope specials, appeared in some films, and even had her own comic strip. The big question was: when would she get a show?
Universal signed her up and developed a sitcom out of a novel about a bunch of broken down ex-rich family, each wacky and eccentric. They live in an unholy and unbelievable alliance with the Internal Revenue service, which allows them to luxuriate in their mansion (Biltmore house stands in for stock shots) and pretend they're still rich as they struggle to pay off their tax debts. "The Pruitts of Southampton" has been named #20 on the all time worst list by TV Guide in 2002. Why didn't it at least escape that list? Because they didn't seem to care what Phyllis's comedy was about. In her stand up routines she plays the most horrible housewife in the world, dressing usually in something nightmarish like a garish, clashing colored mu-mu, tiny white boots, a long cigarette holder and hair frazzled out as if she'd just left a wind tunnel. Her piercing witch cackle puntuated her hilarious descriptions of improbable beauty hints, cooking tips or bizzare anecdotes describing life with her husband, "Fang".
You'd probably think some crazy kind of middle or lower class Addams family could spring from this, but instead, they cast poor Phyllis in the role of a gracious, if faded super-upper class woman with high style clothes and servants to do the work. In the pilot, she has movie star-grade perfectly set and coiffed hair, with tasteful jewelry and make-up. They just erased Phyllis. Her family and friends included Reginald Gardiner, Gysy Rose Lee, Paul Lynde, John McIver, Richard Deacon, John Astin, Jackie Coogan, Grady Sutton etc. and seemed to have a decent budget. The music in the background is what is usually heard in lighthearted Universal comedies of the period, like the Don Knotts features. With so many people,the stories tend to expand further than Phyllis's character can remain essential, so visiting relatives become the focus, and Phyl gets nothing but reaction shots with unfunny quips to spout. Their money making schemes are unclever, or stupid. For instance, a machine that dresses hair into a glamourous 'do just by sticking your head into it for a second could have made them millions, except that it makes mistakes and gives the wrong styles/colors/cuts at random, even switching hair from one head to another! THAT is stupid. What's worse? The very next week the same misfire box with a head hole in it has now become an equally unreliable pizza machine. Yes, that's right.The two functions are apparently only a few minor adjustments apart. But it chucks pizzas out by the dozens, casting them airborne as the cast scrambles like spectators caught at a live skeet range. Such is the stuff they tossed poor Phyllis into. The last four or five episodes changed the title of the show to The Phyllis Diller Show, as if she had much to do with it, or that it would help. And it's really a shame too, because this clunker scared off any chances for better offers later. Phyllis was a very gifted, and original comedienne.