Flip Wilson Show was the first successful network variety series
with an African-American star. In its first two seasons, its Nielsen
ratings placed it as America's second most-watched show. Flip Wilson
based his storytelling humor on his background in black clubs, but
adapted easily to a television audience. The show's format dispensed
with much of the clutter of previous variety programs and focused
on the star and his guests.
"Flip" Wilson had been working small venues for over a decade when
Redd Foxx observed his act in 1965 and raved about him to Johnny
Carson. As a result, Flip made over 25 appearances on the Tonight
Show, and in 1968, NBC signed him to a five-year development
made guest appearances on shows like Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
and the first episode of Love, American Style.
On 22 September 1969, he appeared with 20 other up and coming comics
in a Bob Hope special, which was followed by a Flip Wilson Show
special, a pilot for the series to come. The special introduced
many distinctive elements that would be part of the series. The
most striking element was the small round stage in the middle of
the audience, from which Wilson told jokes and where guests sang
and performed sketches with minimal sets.
his opening monologue in that special, Wilson told a story about
a minister's wife who tried to justify her new extravagant purchase
by explaining how "the Devil made me buy this dress!" The wife's
voice was the one subsequently used for all his female characters,
whether a girlfriend or Queen Isabella ("Christopher Columbus going
to find Ray Charles!"). Later in the special, he put a look
to the voice in a sketch opposite guest Jonathan Winters. Winters
played his swinging granny character, Maudie Frickert, as an airline
passenger, and when Wilson donned a contemporary stewardess' outfit--loud
print miniskirt and puffy cap--Geraldine Jones was born. The audience
howled as Winters apparently met his match.
was encouraged with the special to go ahead with a regular series,
and The Flip Wilson Show joined the fall lineup on 17 September
1970. Wilson appeared at the opening and explained that there was
no big opening production number, because it would have cost $104,000.
"So I thought I would show you what $104,000 looks like." Flashing
a courier's case filled with bills before the camera and audience,
he asked, "Now, wasn't that much better than watching a bunch of
girls jumping around the stage?"
That monologue illustrated one of chances Wilson and his producer,
Bob Henry, took. They did away with the variety show's staples of
chorus lines, singers and dancers, and allowed the star and his
guests to carry the show. The creative gamble paid off as The
Flip Wilson Show defeated all comers in its time slot and won
two Emmy awards in 1971: as Best Vriety Show and for Best Writing
In A Variety Show.
show was also a landmark in the networks' fitful history of integrating
its prime-time lineup. Nat "King" Cole had been the first African-American
to host a variety show, which NBC carried on a sustaining basis
in 1956. Despite appearances by guests like Frank Sinatra, Tony
Bennett and Harry Belafonte, the show could not attract sponsors,
nor could it obtain sufficient clearances from affiliates. Cole
left the air at the end of 1957. Later, NBC was more successful
with Bill Cosby in I Spy, and Diahann Carroll as Julia.
The week after The Flip Wilson Show's premiere, ABC debuted
its first all-black situation comedy, an unsuccessful adaptation
of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park.
the run of his show Wilson created several other characters who
flirted with controversy. There was the Rev. Leroy, of the Church
of What's Happenin' Now, whose sermons were tinged with a hint of
larceny; Freddy the Playboy: always, but unsuccessfully, on the
make; and Sonny, the White House janitor, who knew more than the
president about what was going on.
Geraldine Jones was by far the most popular character on the series.
Flip wrote Geraldine's material himself and tried not to use her
to demean black women. Though flirty and flashy, Geraldine was no
"finger popping chippie." Geraldine was also based partly on Butterfly
McQueen's character in Gone With the Wind: unrefined but
outspoken and honest ("What you see is what you get, honey!"). She
expected respect and was devoted to her unseen boyfriend, "Killer."
It also helped that Flip had the legs for the role, and did not
burlesque Geraldine's build, though NBC Standards and Practices
had asked him to reduce Geraldine's bust a little.
part of the show's appeal was its variety of guests. Like Ed Sullivan,
Flip tried to appeal to as many people as possible. The premiere
saw James Brown, David Frost and the Sesame Street Muppets. A later
show offered Roger Miller, the Temptations, Redd Foxx and Lily Tomlin,
whom Freddy the Playboy tried to pick up. Roy Clark, Bobby Darin
and Denise Nicholas joined Wilson for a "Butch Cassidy and the Suntan
Flip Wilson Show turned out to be one of the last successful
variety shows. CBS' 1972 offering, The Waltons, became a surprise
hit, winning the same Thursday time slot. By 1973-74, it was John-Boy
and company who had the second most popular show of the season.
NBC put Flip Wilson's show to rest, airing its last episode on 24
The Flip Wilson Show
The Jack Regas Dancers
The George Wyle Orchestra
September 1970-June 1971
Thursday 7:30-8:30 September 1971-June 1974 Thursday
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of TV's Best. New York: Penguin, 1992.
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