Sunday, September 13, 2015

Classic TV: The Flip Wilson Show (1970)

Clerow "Flip" Wilson became the first African-American to headline a variety show with The Flip Wilson Show in 1970 on NBC. You know, I'm sure, Wilson's two best known characters, Geraldine Jones (Wilson in drag) and Reverend Leroy, the pastor of the Church of What's Happening Now!, which some folks might've taken for an elaborate con. Amazingly, Geraldine was used more often, resulting in lines like "The Devil made me do it" or "What you see is what you get" becoming iconic phrases.

In all, Wilson was part of a television revolution in the early 70's, as more shows spotlighting African-Americans were hitting the airwaves. By 1970, Room 222 was a hit for ABC, and Julia had wrapped its run on NBC. In the wake of Wilson's success, impressionist George Kirby headlined a half-hour syndicated series, but managed only a season by my reckoning, and the similarly mega-hot All in the Family would boast not one, but two series in its family tree that would be just as successful in The Jeffersons, a direct spinoff, and Good Times, which was spun-off from Maude. Checking In, spun from The Jeffersons as a solo vehicle for Marla Gibbs, bombed.

Wilson also produced a pair of animated specials that chronicled his upbringing, but those specials haven't seen the light of day in over 40 years.

Right now, let's scope an episode from 1973 with guests Richard Pryor & Tim Conway. Conway introduces the episode from a DVD release:

Reruns have been aired in half-hour increments, likely due to how it was distributed in syndication after cancellation. Today, TV One & Aspire share cable rights (check listings). Unfortunately, it's still in the half-hour format.

Rating: B.


magicdog said...

Loved Flip WIlson! The last appearance on TV that I remember was just a few months before he did - he was on FX's morning show, "Breakfast Time". He was telling how "Geraldine" came to be:

When he was a boy in elementary school, the class was preparing a pageant including several historical figures. One of those was Clara Barton. A white female classmate had the role of Barton for the show, but Flip told her he could replace her if he wanted to. He spoke to her in a high pitched voice - similar to what we now know as Geraldine. Fast forward to the night of the show and the girl meant to play Barton was unavailable, so the teacher immediately took Flip and put on a wig and the nurse's costume. She told him to keep his back to the audience. The curtain went up, and Flip couldn't help himself and turned to face the audience. The whole house came crashing down!! That was the beginning of his career in comedy - and Geraldine was born!

I also remember Wilson being courted by many of his old fans for years after his show went off the air. They admired him and his clean sense of comedy and they believed he'd be a good role model for their kids. He would have been, IMO, but he quit show biz to raise his kids. Luckily, he invested wisely (I think it was in a cruise ship line) and he didn't have to work.

His death came as quite a shock since his illness had not been reported until after he died.

hobbyfan said...

The Clara Barton story was told in one of Flip's animated specials he made for DePatie-Freleng & NBC. Unfortunately, only the opens to those two specials are available on YouTube.....

magicdog said...

Never saw the special - I'd never heard the story until the 90s.

hobbyfan said...

I remember seeing the special, and the reference to the play, "Clara Barton: Red Cross Nurse". I'll have something on that over at Saturday Morning Archives down the line.