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  1. Aug 2023
    1. Comedian Phyllis Diller had “gag file,” which is now housed at The Smithsonian: Phyllis Diller’s groundbreaking career as a stand-up comic spanned almost 50 years. Throughout her career she used a gag file to organize her material. Diller’s gag file consists of a steel cabinet with 48 drawers (along with a 3 drawer expansion) containing over 52,000 3-by-5 inch index cards, each holding a typewritten joke or gag.

      A Zettelkasten for jokes!

    1. BredenbeckCorp, Hanna. “Up Close and Personal with Phyllis Diller’s Gag File.” National Museum of American History (blog), March 1, 2017. https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/close-and-personal-phyllis-dillers-gag-file.

    2. Hanna BredenbeckCorp is a project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts.
    3. In the end, I numbered and scanned 52,569 individual note cards from the Phyllis Diller gag file.

      Hanna BredenbeckCorp numbered and scanned 52,569 index cards from Phyllis Diller's gag file. Prior to this archival effort most estimates for the numbers of cards were in the 40-50,000 range.

      Spanning the 1960s to the 1990s roughly. The index was donated in 2003, so there were certainly no

      Exact dating on the cards may give a better range, particularly if the text can be searched or if there's a database that can be sorted by date.

      Via https://hypothes.is/a/UbW8nERrEe6xjEseEEEy1w we can use the rough dates: 1955-2002 which are the bookends of her career.

      This gives us a rough estimate of:<br /> 2002-1955 = 48 years (inclusive) or 17,520 days (at 365 days per year ignoring leap years)

      52,569/17520 days gives 3.000513698630137 or almost exactly 3 cards (jokes) per day.

      Going further if she was getting 12 laughs (jokes) per minute (her record, see: https://hypothes.is/a/MTLukkRpEe635oPT5lr7qg), then if continuously told, it would have taken her 52,569 jokes/12 jokes/minute = 4,380.75 minutes = 73.0125 hours or 3.0421875 days to tell every joke in her file.

    4. This joke card has a comic clipped from a newspaper glued to it. During the digitization process, the index card was put in a clear Mylar sleeve to prevent the comic, with its brittle glue, from being damaged or separated from the card.

      The potential separation of newspaper clippings from index cards and their attendant annotations/meta data (due to aging of glue) can be a potential source of note loss when creating a physical card index.

    5. While most of the joke cards are simply index cards with a joke typed on, others are more complicated. Some cards have strips of paper glued to them with longer jokes on those papers. Some cards have entire letter-size sheets of paper containing long jokes stapled to the cards. Some cards have comic strips, cut from the newspaper, glued to the cards. Other cards are not even cards but are just pieces of printer paper with jokes scribbled on them. These irregular cards were not stable enough to be sent through the feed scanner and had to be scanned one-by-one using a flatbed scanner, which slowed my progress.

      Not only a short description of the broad standard form of cards in Phyllis Diller's gag file, but also an enumeration of some of the non-standard cards, many of which are specified because of the issues which they presented in scanning/digitizing for transcription.

    6. I started my project by writing a small number, in pencil, on the back of each card. The numbers are used to keep track of the original drawer in which the card was located, as well as the card's position within that drawer. For example, the card numbered 15-0837 would be the 837th card in Drawer 15.

      The numbers which appear in pencil on the verso of Phyllis Diller's index cards were those added by archivist Hanna BredenbeckCorp prior to scanning them for transcription.

    1. Oliar, Dotan; Sprigman, Christopher (2008). "There's No Free Laugh (Anymore): The Emergence of Intellectual Property Norms and the Transformation of Stand-Up Comedy". Virginia Law Review. 94 (8): 1848. JSTOR 25470605. Retrieved September 16, 2020. There is also evidence in the [Diller archive…at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.] file suggesting that Diller appropriated from other sources [apart from self-creation or using her writing team], including newspaper comic strips and comedy books. For example, a number of Diller's jokes about her dysfunctional marriage to her fictional husband 'Fang' appear to have been inspired by a comic strip, 'The Lockhorns,' that Diller followed obsessively over the course of nearly a decade. The Diller joke files contain hundreds of 'Lockhorns' panels cut out of newspapers and mounted on index cards.
    1. Edwards, Owen. “Comic Phyllis Diller’s Cabinet Keeps the Jokes Coming.” Smithsonian Magazine (blog), March 2007. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/comic-phyllis-dillers-cabinet-keeps-the-jokes-coming-147794613/.

    2. "The [joke] file is like a tree," says Diller. "Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old." Along with this cache—Diller refers to it as "my life in one-liners"
    3. Even the alphabetized categories evoke a laugh: "Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping..." "Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names..."

      Topical headings in Phyllis Diller's gag file

    4. a steel filing cabinet of safe-like dimensions

      Owen Edwards in 2007 compared Phyllis Diller's gag file to a safe.

    1. Py-Lieberman, Beth. “Comic Phyllis Diller, the Betty Friedan of Comedy, Dies at 95.” Online magazine. Smithsonian Magazine (blog), August 20, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/comic-phyllis-diller-the-betty-friedan-of-comedy-dies-at-95-28360980/.

    2. “The file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”

      Phyllis Diller analogizing her index card file to a tree.

    3. each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”

      Some of the topical headings in Phyllis Diller's gag file

    1. https://collections.si.edu/search/detail/ead_component:sova-sia-fa13-194-refidd1e6139?q=phyllis+diller+gag+file&record=12&hlterm=phyllis%2Bdiller%2Bgag%2Bfile

      Phyllis Diller Joke File, 2010

      In addition to her larger indexed gag file, it appears that Phyllis Diller donated a separate joke file (box 6 of 8) to the National Museum of American History which contains archival materials and has been restricted for 15 years until 2027-01-01.

      ARCHIVAL REPOSITORY: Smithsonian Institution Archives EDAN-URL: ead_component:sova-sia-fa13-194-refidd1e6139

    1. https://collections.si.edu/search/record/edanmdm:nmah_1218385

      Phyllis Diller's gag file appears to have been made of 16 standard three-drawer beige Steelmaster (Art Steel Company, Inc.) index card files which were stacked in two columns and enclosed in a matching beige external frame which was mounted on casters. Having overflowed the 48 available drawers, there was an additional 3-drawer file added on top as an expansion.

      The Smithsonian dates the files from 1962 to 1994, but perhaps the digitized version can be searched by date to determine the actual earliest and latest dates on included cards as most had at least a month and a year.

    1. This beige metal cabinet is Phyllis Diller’s gag file, a categorized archive of the jokes Diller used in her stand-up comedy routines throughout her half-century long career. A small three drawer expansion of the gag file is also in NMAH’s collection (Catalog Number 2003.0289.01.02). The 48 drawers of the gag file, along with the 3 drawer expansion, contain a total of 52,569 3-by-5 inch index cards, each holding a typewritten joke or gag.

      52,569 3x5" index cards!

    2. Equal rights for the sexes will be reached only when totally unqualified women occupy high positions of power. —Phyllis Diller, May 1979, gag file under Women's Liberation

      From the Phyllis Diller gag file at https://transcription.si.edu/project/8547<br /> via https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1218385#

    1. Numbers on Cards The curatorial and collections teams are trying to learn more about the appearance of "No. #" on cards. Please transcribe this number on a separate line underneath the Date line, above the Joke line.

      Some of the cards in Phyllis Diller's gag file were numbered, but the curatorial and collections team at the Smithsonian didn't have enough data to determine what these were or what they meant at the time of transcription.

    2. The digitization of Phyllis Diller’s index card collection was generously supported by Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan.
    3. 48 drawers (along with a 3 drawer expansion)

      Finally a source that indicates the full 51 drawers of Diller's gag file.

    1. Jacqueline Trescott in The Washington Post [Phyllis Diller’s joke file becomes a Smithsonian exhibit] (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/phyllis-dillers-joke-file-at-the-smithsonian/2011/07/27/gIQAZ0dXjI_story.html)<br /> (accessed:: 2023-08-26 04:59:59)

    2. on Aug. 12, the National Museum of American History is giving the artifact pristine treatment.WpGet the full experience.Choose your planArrowRight"Have You Heard the One . . . ? The Phyllis Diller Gag File" is an exhibition of the beige cabinet in the quiet Albert H. Small Documents Gallery.

      The National Museum of American History debuted Phyllis Diller's gag file on August 12, 2011 in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery in an exhibition entitled "Have you Hard the One...? The Phyllis Diller Gag File."

      see also: press release https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/releases/national-museum-american-history-showcases-life-and-laughs-phyllis-diller

    3. Diller typed her jokes on index cards and filled 48 file drawers.

      Repetition of the number 48 for the file drawers in the Phyllis Diller gag file despite photos which show the main file and an additional section with 3 drawers on top.

    1. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2839019692842995

      00:06:19 segment Laughter in the Vaults from “Famous Donors.” Stories from the Vaults, September 2007. Season 1, Episode 1. The Smithsonian Channel. https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/episodes/1wyzyg/stories-from-the-vaults-famous-donors-season-1-ep-1.

      1955 Diller was a suburban housewife with 5 children. Her first stage appearance was at 37 years old at Purple Onion Night Club in San Francisco, CA, and her last show was in 2002 at 84 years old.

      Broadway costume from Hello Dolly

      Phyllis Diller points to her card index in the video and calls it her "gag file". Curator Dwight Bowers called it her "joke file".

      Tom Canavagh, actor/comedian<br /> Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator at Smithsonian

    1. Catlin, Roger. “How Many Volunteers Does It Take to Transcribe Phyllis Diller’s 53,000 Jokes?” Smithsonian Magazine, March 6, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-many-volunteers-does-take-transcribe-phyllis-dillers-jokes-180962384/.

    2. Most of the gags, written from the 1960s to the 1980s, are just like that—one per card. But a few that are more involved sometimes take a few cards to tell.

      Most of Phyllis Diller's gag files are written one joke to a card, but some have multiple jokes and some even span multiple cards.

      (Note this is a secondary source and can/should be verified against the digital files.)

    3. Most of the gags, written from the 1960s to the 1980s

      As a preliminary indication, most of Phyllis Diller's index cards were written from the 1960s to the 1980s.

    4. Partial photo of Phyllis Diller's gag file at the Smithsonian with a small three drawer file on top along with two of her record albums and a bronze bust of her head

    5. Close up of a card index file with a drawer pulled out. A label on the top reads Phyllis Diller while the contents slot reads Words of Wisdom, Writer's Ideas, Phyllis - Bad Luck Phyllis - Career

    6. But when Diller’s jokes came up for transcription last week, “they are going like gangbusters,” says Meghan Ferriter, project coordinator. “I think we actually gained about 115 new volunteers in one day.”

      Meghan Ferriter, a project coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution, claimed that the transcription of Phyllis Diller's gag file helped the Smithsonian Transcription Center gain 115 volunteers in a single day.

    7. They were typed and meticulously filed into 48 drawers of a large, beige Steelmaster cabinet on wheels that she donated, along with a few of her wilder getups and wigs to the Smithsonian in 2003—less than a decade before her death in 2012 at 95.

      Phyllis Diller donated her gag file consisting of 51 drawers of Steelmaster card index files (on wheels) along with various dresses, costumes, and wigs to the Smithsonian Institution in 2003.

      Note that this source indicates 48 drawers, which is the primary collection/cabinet, but there is also an additional 3 drawer addition which is often pictured, but apparently not counted here). Compare the actual listing: https://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=phyllis+diller+gag+file

    1. “Phyllis Diller’s File Of 53,000 Jokes.” Weekend Edition Saturday. NPR, March 11, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/03/11/519807672/phyllis-diller-s-file-of-53-000-jokes.

    2. SIMON: That's Heidi Rotbart, Phyllis Diller's longtime friend and producer. That gag file, as Phyllis Diller called it, is a piece of history, a hefty taupe filing cabinet filled with 53,000 alphabetized jokes.

      Phyllis Diller called her card index a "gag file".

      (It would be nice to have separate confirmation of this as it's a journalist ostensibly quoting a second party.)

    3. HEIDI ROTBART: She would write a joke on a piece of paper, and her assistants would type them up on 3-by-5 cards and then place them in the joke file.

      Diller's manager indicated that she wrote jokes on paper and had her assistants type them up on 3 x 5" index cards.

    1. Liebenson, Donald. “Classic Hollywood: Remembering Phyllis Diller (and 52,569 of Her Jokes) at the Smithsonian.” Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2017, sec. Television. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-ca-st-phyllis-diller-smithsonian-20170512-story.html.

    2. Three weeks and 52,569 jokes later, the job was completed.

      While many sources seem to indicate that Phyllis Diller had approximately 52,000 index cards with jokes, the ultimate tally after the completion of transcription for the Smithsonian Institution seems to have been 52,569 cards.

      While the Los Angeles times lists this as the number of jokes, it's far more likely to be the number of cards as some cards I've seen have multiple jokes.

    3. Three weeks and 52,569 jokes later, the job was completed.

      It took three weeks of volunteer effort for transcribers to convert the 52,569 index cards of jokes in Phyllis Diller's gag file into digitized text.

    4. The Smithsonian seems to consistently refer to Phyllis Diller's card index of jokes as a "gag file", but what did Diller herself call it?

    5. The joke file is a snapshot of American history.”

      quote by Hanna BredenbeckCorp, of Smithsonian on Phyllis Diller's gag file

    6. “I admire her ability for organization too. My jokes are still mostly in my head. She got hers on paper in alphabetical order.

      Quote from Roseanne Barr on Phyllis Diller's card index gag file.