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A killer Diller comedic weekend

July 27, 2010 |  1:09 pm

I sure needed a few laughs over the weekend -- and I sure got them.

At the Improv on Melrose, that cradle of comedic genius, Sunday’s "Laughing Matters" benefit cranked out a full house worth of money on behalf of California One Care, which is all about getting the Legislature to pass single-payer health care for the Golden State.

You have to be a pro to extract humor from our health care mess, and they did. In a video cameo before she came onstage, Lily Tomlin reprised her telephone operator Ernestine, pitch-perfect as the obnoxious, power-tripping woman answering calls about health insurance:

HMO? Stands for "help me out." Do you have a choice of doctors? Yes, sir -- you can choose to take the doctor we pick for you.

Tomlin was followed onstage by comedians Geri Jewell, "The Facts of Life" TV actress with cerebral palsy; David Lander, best known as the "Laverne and Shirley" character Squiggy, who has multiple sclerosis and rolled grandly onstage in a motorized chair; and deaf and deft comedian Kathy Buckley. All three had the Improv audience in -- yes, I’m actually going to write it -- stitches, so much so that when Paula Poundstone walked onstage afterward, she looked rueful and, in a deadpan effort at medical solidarity, did point out that her back had really, really been hurting her.

Fred Willard emceed the evening, and Sheila Kuehl delivered the political payday remarks. She’s the longtime state legislator who was pushing for single-payer when single-payer wasn’t cool (as if it were now). Bill Maher, riffing on President Obama, mocked the wild-eyed right-wingers who call the president a socialist. ("Socialist? He isn’t even a liberal.")

Here’s how funny the evening was: People queuing for their cars in the long valet line afterward were enjoying themselves so much that they didn’t (mostly) complain about the wait.

And Phyllis Diller turned 93 on July 17 -- I know, not looking a minute over 90, right? -- and the party came a week late, on Saturday evening, at the L.A. home of her friend Bernie Shine.

Diller sat in a director’s chair, regal in a rose-red velvet top and some pretty swanky rubies -- the July birthstone. Around her milled some of her comedic admirers -- George Lopez, the furry-faced Rip Taylor, Richard Lewis -- and such Hollywood venerables as Debbie Reynolds, Elliott Gould, Ruta Lee and George Chakiris. Milt Larsen, the indefatigable founder-owner of the Magic Castle, did a little sleight of hand with a card that, instead of a suit or a number, read, "I don’t do card tricks."

Shine owns a stupefyingly vast collection of Mickeyana that even Disney would covet, an obsession that began after he sold a Mickey Mouse watch in 1968, instantly regretted it, and set about acquiring every objet de Mickey he could find. ("Do you collect anything?" Shine asked me. "Never, ever start collecting.")

So he could have no higher praise for Diller than telling the guests that she, rather than Mickey, is his favorite comic.

For political leavening, the guest list ran to former DA and TV consultant Gil Garcetti and his wife, Sukey; Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose gift to La Diller was the news that the city had proclaimed it Phyllis Diller Day, and former Mayor Richard Riordan, more than a dozen years Diller’s junior, who told the guests that Diller had once called him "the George Clooney of the Stone Age."

The birthday gal’s gift to her guests? A gratifying burst of that machine-gun cackle of hers.

-- Patt Morrison

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