Ribald yet philosophical comedian who found her calling late in life and was thought to be the oldest working stand-up
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Lynn Ruth Miller believed herself to be the oldest working stand-up in the world. Though she could be bawdy and was dubbed the “Stripping Granny” after appearing on stage with nipple tassels on the outside of her undergarments, Miller was, at heart, more of a storyteller than a provocateur.
She took up comedy at 71 “I didn’t want to peak too soon” after enrolling on a comedy course in San Francisco. Before her first performance, centred on “the horrors of the mammogram”, her teacher announced: “Lynn Ruth is the only member of our troupe who might actually die on stage.”
“But the truth is I did not die,” she said. “Instead, I began to live.” Philosophical in outlook, she insisted: “I’m not a gimmick.” Having been a “social failure” earlier in life, she found community on the stand-up circuit, and started dressing more exuberantly and attracting fans who were much younger than her. She performed twice alongside the Hollywood star Amy Schumer, who praised Miller to a booker turned off by her advancing years.
Seeking further opportunities, “at the nubile age of 81”, Miller sold everything and moved from California to live above a Brighton fish and chip shop. She appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, won Best Cabaret of the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 (for Granny’s Gone Wild) and performed in venues from Barcelona to Bangkok.
Lynn Ruth Miller was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression. She “struggled through a childhood with an angry, insecure” housewife mother, Ida, and an accountant father, Irwin, “too busy to know I existed”. “It is hard to believe when you see me now,” she wrote, “but my every day was riddled with fear.”
Miller earned a degree in education from the University of Michigan in 1955, a master’s in education from the University of Toledo, Ohio, in 1960 and a journalism master’s from Stanford in 1964. Graduating top of her class, she expected to walk into a job at The New York Times. Instead she became, as she later put it, one of life’s losers (she called herself “a failure” nine times in her 2020 book, Getting the Last Laugh). She worked as a primary school teacher, college lecturer, freelance journalist, usherette, presenter on a community TV station and writer of memoirs she struggled to sell out of her suitcase.
Pushing 50, she naively took a job as a telephone operator at an agency fixing up men for sex. “I really thought I was making marriages. I remember saying to my boss, ‘Do you have any happy endings?’ She said, ‘Well, we never check.'” When the penny dropped, Miller quit.
Miller had to overcome what she would call her “litany”: two failed marriages in her 20s, living in poverty in a trailer park in her 40s, losing her home at 80 after the financial crash and cancer at 82.
By the time Miller found her calling “she wasn’t afraid of obscurity, she was over it,” said her friend and collaborator Brian Lobel. “She had been marginalised before, until the moment that she realised she could really take up space. For a woman as small as she was, 4ft 10in, she took up a lot of space emotionally, vocally, spiritually.”
After a performance she would work through the night on colourful collages that she said that no one would want to buy. She would then refuse to rise before 11am, even for TV interviews.
In July, Miller was due to become the oldest comedian to make a UK standup special with her show Not Dead Yet for BBC Radio 4, but recording had to be cancelled after she suffered a minor heart attack. Miller was also working on a PhD on the exclusion of older creatives from the arts.
She had lived alone since she was 25. However, neither age nor singledom which had dashed her dreams of “really a lot of children” had diminished her sensual nature. When meeting up with friends, she demanded a kiss on the lips. She would luxuriate in Miss Dior perfume, buy herself fresh flowers and light candles even for a dinner for one.
She never gave up her search for romance, and in 2016 appeared on Channel 4’s First Dates looking for a man to go dancing with. In May she revealed to The Age Buster website that she had “fallen in love”, though sadly it was unrequited, with a man 20 years her junior, helping to make this “the best year of my life”.
“Even though the older I get, the more invisible I become, I am determined to be seen,” she wrote recently. “Life for me did not end at 65. Not even close. I’m beating the path that everyone can follow, if they dare.”
Lynn Ruth Miller, comedian, was born on October 11, 1933. She died of oesophageal cancer on September 7, 2021, aged 87