Wilson was among a group of rising black comics of the early 1970s,
of such notoriety as Bill Cosby, Nipsey Russell and Dick Gregory.
He is best remembered as the host of The Flip Wilson Show,
the first variety show bearing the name of its African-American
host, and for his role in renewing stereotype comedy.
a keen wit developed during his impoverished youth, Wilson rose
quickly to fame as a stand-up comic and television show host. Under
the stagename Flip, inherited from Air Force pals who joked he was
"flipped out," Wilson began performing in cheap clubs across the
United States. His early routines featured black stereotypes of
the controversial Amos 'n' Andy-type. After performing in hallmark
black clubs such as the Apollo in Harlem and the Regal in Chicago,
Wilson made a successful appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Recommended by Redd Foxx, Wilson also performed on The Tonight
Show to great accolades, becoming a substitute host.
making television guest appearances on such shows as Love, American
Style and That's Life, and starring in his own 1969 NBC
special, Wilson was offered an hour-long prime-time NBC show,
The Flip Wilson Show, which saw a remarkable, four-year run.
Only Sammy Davis Jr. had enjoyed similar success with his song and
dance variety show; comparatively, shows hosted by Nat "King" Cole
and Bill Cosby were quickly canceled, due to lack of sponsorship
and narrow appeal. At the show's high point, advertising rates swelled
to $86,000 per minute, and by 1972, The Flip Wilson Show was
rated the most popular variety show, and the second most popular
show overall in the United States.
television success came from his unique combination of "new" stereotype
comedy and his signature stand-up form. His style combined deadpan
delivery and dialect borrowed from his role models, Redd Foxx and
Bill Cosby, but replaced their humorous puns with storytelling.
His fluid body language, likened to that of silent screen actor
Charlie Chaplin, gave Wilson's act a dynamic and graceful air. The
show benefited from his intensive production efforts, unprecedented
for a black television performer; he wrote one third of the show's
material, heavily edited the work of writers, and demanded a five-day
workweek from his staff and guests to produce each one-hour segment.
Audiences appreciated the show's innovative style risks, such as
the intimate theater-in-the-round studio, and medium-long shots
which replaced close-ups, to fully capture Wilson's expressive movements.
altered his club act for television to accomodate family viewing,
relying on descriptive portraits of black characters and situations,
rather than ridicule. Still, his show offended many African-Americans
and civil rights activists who believed Wilson's humor depended
on race. A large black and white television audience, however, found
universal humor in the routines, and others credited Wilson with
subtly ridiculing the art of stereotyping itself. Wilson, however,
denied this claim, strongly denouncing suggestions that his race
required that his art purport anti-bias messages.
divergent interpretations in fact reflect the variety and difference
among Wilson's characters. Some were easily offensive, such as the
money laundering Reverend Leroy and the smooth swinger, Freddy the
Playboy. Others, such as Sonny, White House janitor and the "wisest
man in Washington", were positive black portraits. The show's most
popular character, Geraldine, exemplifies Wilson's intention to
produce race-free comedy. Perfectly coifed and decked out in designer
clothes and chartreuse stockings, Geraldine demanded respect and,
in Wilson's words, "Everybody knows she don't take no stuff." Liberated,
yet married, outspoken, yet feminine, ghetto-born yet poised, Geraldine
was neither floozy nor threat. This colorful black female image
struck a positive chord with viewers; her one-liners--"The devil
made me do it," and "When you're hot, you're hot"--became national
fads. Social messages were imparted indirectly through Wilson's
characters; the well-dressed and self-respecting Geraldine, for
example, countered the female-degrading acts of other popular stand-up
comics. Through Geraldine, Wilson also negotiated race and class
bias by positively characterizing a working class black female,
in contrast to the absence of female black images on 1970s television,
with the exception of the middle-class black nurse of the 1969 sitcom
Julia. Wilson addressed race more directly through story
and theme; one skit, for example, featured Native American women
discourteously greeting Christopher Columbus and crew on their arrival
in North America. Such innovative techniques enabled Wilson's humorous
characters and themes to suggest racial and gender tolerance.
Wilson's career lost momentum when his show was canceled in 1974.
Though the recipient of a 1970 Emmy Award for outstanding writing
and a 1971 Grammy for best comedy record, Wilson's career never
rekindled. He continued to make television specials, and TV guest
appearances, debuted in Sydney Poitier's successful, post-blaxploitation
film, Uptown Saturday Night, and performed in two subsequent
unsuccessful films. His 1985 television comeback, Charlie and
Company--a sitcom following The Cosby Show's formula--had
a short run.
saw himself first as an artist, hence, humor was more prominent
than politics in his comic routines. This style, however, allowed
him to successfully impart occassional social messages into his
act. Moreover, he achieved unprecedented artistic control of his
show, pressing the parameters for black television perfomers and
producers. Through Geraldine, Wilson created one of a few respectful
television images for black woman, who were generally marginalized
by both the civil rights and women's movements of that era. Finally,
though no regular black variety show took up where Wilson left off,
its success paved the way for the popularity of later sitcoms featuring
middle- and working-class black families, situations, and dialect,
shows such as Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons and Good
Photo courtesy of Flip Wilson
WILSON. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A., 8 December
1933. Married: 1957 (divorced 1967); four children. Served in U.S.
Air Force 1950-54. Bellhop and part-time entertainer, Manor Plaza
Hotel, San Francisco, 1954; travelled country performing in low-paying
night clubs, late 1950s; regular act at New York City's Apollo Theater,
early 1960s; appearances on The Tonight Show, from 1965; appeared
in numerous television shows, including Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In,
1967-68; recorded comedy records, 1967-68; star, The Flip Wilson
Show, 1970-74; appeared in films, from 1970s; appeared in television
series Charlie & Company, 1985-86. Recipient: Emmy Award, 1970;
Grammy Award, 1971. Address: c/o Triad Artists Inc., 16th Floor,
10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, California 90067, U.S.A.
The Flip Wilson Show
1985-86 Charlie and Company
1974 Flip Wilson...Of Course
1974 The Flip Wilson Special
1975 The Flip Wilson Special
1975 The Flip Wilson Special
Travels With Flip
1975 The Flip Wilson Comedy Special
Uptown Saturday Night, 1974; Skatetown, U.S.A., 1979; The
Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, 1979
Cowboys and Colored People, 1967; Flippin', 1968;
Flip Wilson, You Devil You, 1968
B. "Many Faces of Flip." Good Housekeeping (New York), 1971.
Louie. "The Evolution of Geraldine." Ebony (Chicago), 1970.
"When You're Hot You're Hot." Time (New York), 1972.
Wilson Show; Racism,
Ethnicity, and Television