PERFORMERS: FLIP WILSON

by Peter Tatchell (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #21, 2000) 

The 1960s was a breakthrough decade for black comedy performers on U.S. television. The door had already opened for singers like Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and a number of musical groups, and eventually the major networks signed such names as Bill Cosby for the drama series I Spy, Diahann Carroll as the lead in the sitcom Julia, and comics like Redd Foxx for regular appearances on the many tonight shows and musical comedy hours then populating the schedules. Undoubtedly the most successful black comedian of the era however was Flip Wilson, who eventually succeeded in hosting his own top-rating variety programme.

Born Clerow Wilson in Jersey City in 1933, he and his seventeen brothers and sisters were orphaned when he was eight. The rest of his childhood was spent at reform school before joining the air force, where he entertained his fellow servicemen with jokes and humorous routines, and gained the nickname ‘Flip” (for his flippant use of glib and mock-pretentious dialogue).

By the mid-1950s Wilson was working as a bellhop and occasional hotel comedian, using the adult type of material prevalent in the acts of his more-successful contemporaries. Eventually he phased out the sex and drug references and relied on more mainstream routines to get him exposure with a wider audience. As his early LP recordings show, the sixties Flip Wilson was in tune with the hip generation and liberation, and had relegated the more traditional dialect tones of his standup to the characters of preacher Reverend Leroy and the sassy, streetwise Geraldine Jones. Geraldine was inspired by the ladyfriend of a buddy back in his service days, and an early incarnation can be heard as Queen Isabel of Spain in Flip’s famous Christopher Columbus routine.

Wilson’s big television break carne in 1965 when Redd Foxx recommended him on-air to Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, and Flip was invited to appear soon after. It was the first of many return engagements, which led to a guest-hosting stint when Carson vacationed, and a plethora of other spots on specials and variety shows. Most notable of these were appearances on the first two editions of Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In in early 1968, and a further four guest shots over the following twelve months.

N.B.C. executives liked what they saw and gave Wilson his own one-hour special in September 1969, hoping some of the magic from the Laugh-In phenomenon would carry on in the hour after Dan and Dick departed. The show was an enormous hit, the high spot being Flip and guest Jonathan Winters (both in drag) engaging in a battle between their alter egos of Geraldine Jones and Maude Frickert.

The special convinced the network to star Flip in a weekly music and comedy hour the following season, and The Flip Wilson Show debuted on Thursday September l7 , 1970 for a lengthy run.

From the start, the programme was a popular mix of leading names from the music world, TV favourites and lesser known standup comedians or double acts. Flip owned half the show, and saw to it that friends from the nightclub circuit (like George Carlin, Robert Klein, Stiller & Meara and Burns & Schreiber) were given national exposure. Redd Foxx (soon to enjoy sitcom success with Sandford And Son) was invited along by way of thanks for the help he’d given Wilson with Johnny Carson five years before.

Just about every major black musical artist (past and present) was included in the roster of guest stars, from legends such as Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald to more recent names like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five. Network television had given Flip the venue … and he was more than happy to share the success around.

The show was a winner in the ratings being the second most popular show on the air (a spot it maintained the following season as well) and won Emmy awards for best musical variety series and outstanding writing achievement at the May 9 1971 presentations. It was a major breakthrough for a black comic from the backstreets of New Jersey, and one whose main character saw him appearing as a woman on a regular basis. In Britain, comedians in drag had long been a tradition, but on American television only Milton Berle had enjoyed any real success with the device.

The Flip Wilson Show enjoyed a four year run and nearly a hundred editions, after which N.B.C. backed him in half a dozen specials. He was also a regular guest on just about every other comedy special the network aired at the time.

By the 1980s things had slowed down a little with Flip retreating to live appearances. In 1984 he hosted a shortlived revival of the 1950s stunt sbow People Are Funny (again on N.B.C.) and the following year C.B.S. tried to come up with a clone of the then hugely successful Cosby Show. They cast Wilson as the lead in Charlie And Company, a sitcom with a similar family setting, but even the mid-season addition of Della Reese as an antagonistic relative couldn’t save it from cancellation after only eighteen episodes.

It was the last roll of the dice in what had been an incredible success story. Flip Wilson died of liver cancer in November 1998 and Miss Geraldine Jones took her wig and miniskirt and left the stage.

Television

The FIip Wilson Show (NBC 60 min)
September 22 1969
with guests Jonathan Winters, Arte Johnson, Andy Williams, Jackie DeShannon and Bob Hope

The Flip Wilson Show (NBC 60 min)
Season 1: September 17 1970 to April 1 1971 (26 editions)
Sep 17 David Frost, James Brown, The Muppets
Sep 24 Roy Clark, Bobby Darin
Oct 1 Roger Miller, The Temptations, Lily Tomlin, Redd Foxx
Oct 8 Perry Como, Charlie Callas, Lola Falana
Oct 15 Raymond Burr, The Muppets, Sundays Child
Oct 22 Louis Armstrong, Charlie Callas, Pat Morita
Oct 29 Bill Cosby, Gina Lollobrigida
Nov 5 Robert Goulet, Robert Klein, l,ola Falana
Nov 19 Arte Johnson, Moms Mabley, Marcel Marceau
Nov 26 Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Pride, Bobby Darin
Dec 3 Connie Stevens, John Byner, Stevie Wonder
Dec 10 Lena Horne, Tony Randall
Dec 17 Sid Caesar, B.B. King, Bobby Darin
Dec 24 Burl Ives, Sha Na Na
Jan 7 Bing Crosby, The Supremes, David Steinberg
Jan 14 Steve Lawrence, Roberta Flack, Zero Mostel
Jan 21 Muhammad Ali, Bobby Darin, Lily Tomlin
Jan 28 Bill Cosby, Nancy Wilson, Claudine Longet
Feb 4 Joe Namath, Johnny Mathis, George Carlin
Feb 11 Art Carney, Barbara Feldon
Feb 18 David Frost, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Callas
Feb 25 Don Rickles, Ray Charles, Leslie Uggams
Mar 4 Diahann Carroll, Tim Conway, Robert Klein
Mar 11 Lena Horne, Ray Stevens, George Carlin
Mar 18 Gaylord & Holiday, Lily Tomlin
Apr 1 Tim Conway, Sandy Duncan

Season 2: September 16 1971 to March 16 1972 (26 editions)
Sep 16 Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, The Osmonds
Sep 23 George Gobel, Joan Rivers, Mahalia Jackson
Sep 30 Raymond Burr, Ruth Gordon, Stevie Wonder
Oct 7 Ruth Buzzi, Tim Conway, Erroll Garner
Oct 14 Pat Boone, George Carlin, Sugar Ray Robinson
Oct 21 David Frost, The Supremes, Willie Tyler & Lester
Oct 28 Melba Moore
Nov 4 Lily Tomlin, Dr. David Reuben, Hudson & Landry, The Jackson Five
Nov 11 Diahann Carroll,,Dom Deluise, The Muppets
Nov 18 Andy Griffith, Tim Conway, Clara Ward Singers
Nov 25 Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Lena Horne
Dec 2 Phyllis Diller, Tony Randall, Billy Eckstine
Dec 16 Petula Clark, Roy Clark, Redd Foxx
Dec 23 Melba Moore, Marty Feldman, Jimmy Osmond
Dec 30 Carol Channing, David Steinberg
Jan 6 Dan Blocker, Kay Ballard, Ray Charles
Jan 13 Redd Foxx, Tim Conway, Bobby Darin
Jan 20 Dom Deluise, George Carlin, Aretha Franklin
Jan 27 Johnny Cash, June Carter, Jim Brown
Feb 3 Phil Silvers, Barbara Feldon, B.B. King
Feb 10 Sandy Duncan, Jim Nabors, Slappy White
Feb 17 Roy Clark, Barbara McNair, Stiller & Meara
Feb 24 Joe Namath, George Carlin, Miss Black America
Mar 2 Sammy Davis Jr., Lily Tomlin
Mar 9 Lee Marvin, Ruth Buzzi, Chi-Lites
Mar 16 Bing Crosby, Tim Conway, Melba Moore

Season 3: September 14 1972 to March 15 1973 (25 editions)
Sep 14 Jack Benny, Pearl Bailey, George Carlin, The Muppets
Sep 21 Tim Conway, The Fifth Dimension
Sep 28 Don Knotts, Melba Moore
Oct 5 Ruth Buzzi, The Supremes, Burns & Schreiber
Oct 12 Paul McCartney, Bill Russell, Stiller & Meara
Oct 26 David Steinberg, Diana Sands, The Jackson Five
Nov 2 Carol Channing, Ed Asner, Donny Hathaway
Nov 9 Don Adams, Roscoe Ire Browne, Staple Singers
Nov 16 Burt Reynolds, Tim Conway, Roberta Flack
Nov 23 Frank Gorshin, Joan Rivers, The Temptations
Nov 30 Raymond Burr, Dom Deluise, Gladys Knight
Dec 7 Dionne Warwick, Tony Randall, Burns & Schreiber
Dec 14 Johnny Cash, June Carter, Bill Russell, Albert Brooks
Dec 21 Tim Conway, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Slappy White
Jan 4 Jim Nabors, Barbara McNair, James Coco
Jan 11 Andy Griffith, Roscoe Lee Browne, Curtis Mayfield
Jan 18 Howard Cosell, Marty Feldman, Sandy Duncan, Taj Mahal
Jan 25 Sammy Davis Jr., Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Michaels
Feb 1 Ray Charles, Phyllis Diller, The Committee
Feb 8 Diana Sands, Helen Reddy, Dom Deluise, Kreskin
Feb 15 Roy Clark, George Carlin, Melba Moore
Feb 22 Ed McMahon, Rich Little, Cicely Tyson
Mar 1 Joe Namath, Tim Conway, Papa John Creach
Mar 8 Ruth Buzzi, The Supremes, Burns & Schreiber
Mar 15 Richard Pryor, Don Knotts, Oscar Brown Jr.

Season 4: September 20 1973 to March 21 I974 (19 editions)
Sep 20 Buddy Hackett, Ruth Buzzi, Richard Pryor
Sep 27 William Windom, Sandy Duncan, Monty Hall, The Pointer Sisters
Oct 4 Ralph Edwards, Richard Pryor, Nate Purefoy
Oct 11 Helen Reddy, Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers
Oct 25 Harry Belafonte, Burns & Schreiber
Nov 1 Robert Goulet, Carol Lawrence, Slappy White
Nov 15 Lee Grant, Hank Aaron, Gladys Knight
Nov 29 Tim Conway, Richard Pryor, Romark
Dec 6 Leonard Nimoy, Ed McMahon, Charlie Callas
Dec 13 Stiller & Meara, Aretha Franklin
Dec 20 Burns & Schreiber, The Fifth Dimension
Dec 27 Anthony Newley, Jack Klugman, Roscoe Lee Browne
Jan 3 Ted Knight, The Pointer Sisters
Jan 10 Bobby Sandler, Roy Clark, Melba Moore
Feb 7 Steve Lawrence, Richard Pryor
Feb 21 Dennis Weaver, O.J. Simpson
Feb 28 Redd Foxx, Don Adams, Mclean Stevenson
Mar 7 Lena Horne, Tony Randall, Bob & Ray
Mar 21 Perry Como, Charlie Callas, Lola Falana

Flip Wilson specials (all 60 minutes, on N.B.C.)

Oct 18 1974 (titled Flip Wilson … Of Course)
Peter Sellers, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor

Dec 11 1974
Paul Williams, Diahann Carroll, Freddie Prinze

Feb 27 1975
Helen Reddy, William Conrad, $ammy Davis

May 7 1975
Cher, Richard Pryor, Mclean Stevenson

Oct 15 1975 (titled Travels With Flip)
Muhummad Ali, Loretta Lynn

Nov 11 1.975 (titled The Flip Wilson Comedy Special)
George Carlin, Ruth Buzzi, The Pointer Sisters

FIip Wilson’s Salute To Football (60 min)
c. 1970s details unknown

 

People Are Funny (30 min)
N.B.C. March 24 1984 (9 episodes) 

Charlie And Company (30 min)
C.B.S. from September 18 1985 (18 episodes)

Bibliography

On Stage Flip Wilson
by Thomas Braun (Creative Education, Mankato, Minnesota. 1976) 

Discography

Flip Wilson’s Pot Luck
Scepter LP 520 (1964)
(reissued as The Best Of Flip Wilson Scepter LP CTN 18011,
Funny And Live At The Village Gate
Springboard LP SP 4004, Richmond CD NCD 2167, King CD KG 0268-2
Live At The Village Gate
Varese Sarabande CD VSD 5872)
The Smoker
The Audience
Equality
The President
The Army And Leroy Jenkins
The Cure
On The Subway
Questions And Answers
Ray Charles’ Greatest Fan
Vital Statistics
How To Be A Matador
Where I Come From
George’s Funeral
On The Train
The Drinker
The Expectant Father
At The Airport
The Old Woman
Black Bart
Lulu
 

(highlights from the above disc are featured on…
Pissed Off!
Phoenix LP 10 PHX 360
Wriggers
Racial Stand
Private Jenkins
Wooden Belly Button
The Ray Charles Fan
Cadillac Owners
The Matador
(plus seven Richard Pryor tracks)
and
Flip Wilson
unlabeled EP SKl
Where I Came From
George’s Funeral
On The Train
Questions And Answers
The Old Woman
Black Bart
The Army And Leroy Jenkins
 

Flippin’ – The Very Funny Flip Wilson
Liberty / Minit LP 24012, Imperial LP 91551 (1968)
(reissued as Flipped Out  Sunset LP SUS 5297)
tracks not itemised 

Cowboys And Colored People
Atlantic I-P SD 8149
(also issued as Watch Out! Atlantic LP 588 138)
Cowboys And Colored People
Midget
Riot Suit
David And Goliath
Ugly People
Staying On Too Long
Christopher Columbus
Kids
Cheap Hotel
Church On Sunday
Big Hand
Confidential Survey
 

Cowboys And Coloured People
Atlantic EP 45-EP-1000 SP
Riot Suit
Staying On Too Long
Confidential Survey
Cowboys And Coloured People
 

You Devil You
Atlantic LP SD 8179 (1968)
Twenty Minutes Of Silence
Herman’s Berry
I Wanted To Be A Singer
The Millionaire
The Joey Bishop Show
Ugly Baby
Days Of The Knights
The Gardener
I’m Not Flip Wilson
Lulu
The Shadow
Dr. Freddie
Train
Land Of Opportunity
Paid To Die
Ugly Girl
The Bat

You Devil You
Atlantic EP 45-EP A-1008
The Gardener
The Millionaire
Ugly Baby
I Want To Be A Singer
The Joey Bishop Show
The Shadow
Dr. Freddie

The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress
Atlantic LP LD 1000 (1972)
Great Quotations
The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress
Miss Johnson
The Great Motor Bike And Tennis Shoe Race
Honey The Go-Rilla
Monologue Number One: Wardrobe Lady Part I +  Drive-In Movie + Lemonade Stand + Golf Story
Monologue Number Two: Wardrobe Lady Part 2 + Doctors Have More Fun
Ice
Ruby Begonia
Monologue Number Three: Seeing Ed Eat A Chittlin’ On Network Television +
The Pet Shop

The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress
Little David EP X-50
Great Quotations
The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress
Ruby Begonia
Ice
 

Geraldine – Don’t Fight The Feeling
Atlantic LP LD 1001 (1972)
Geraldine Honey
The Bunny Club (with Bing Crosby)
Don’t Fight The Feeling
The Perfect Secretary (with Ruth Buzzi and Tim Conway)
Complaint Department (with Phyllis Diller, Billy Eckstine and Tony Randall)
Killer
Chicken Delicious (with Jim Brown)
 

Killer / Don’t Fight The Feeling
Little David 7” single LD 721

The Bunny Club / The Perfect Secretary
Little David 7” single PR 173

Flip – The Flip Wilson Show
Little David LP LD 2000
The Flip Wilson Show
Muhammad Ali
Geraldine Meets David Frost
Haunted House
The Blues
Creamed Chipped Beef
Reverend Leroy
 

The Flip Wilson Show
Little David EP X-51
Geraldine Visits David Frost
The Blues

Berries In Salinas / There Ought To Be A Law
Little David 7” single LDS 8113 (1975)

Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye (both sides)
Little David 7” single 7-99858 (1983)

The Sullivan Years – Comedy Classics
TVT CD 9432-2 (1991)
features two Ed Sullivan Show monologues (from January 1 1967 and January 11 1970)

 

DVD 

The Flip Wilson Show
Rhino DVD
features 22 minute editions of five shows:
January 21 1971
January 27 1972
February 4 1971
October 12 1972
January 19 1973

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