Wilson, Flip 1933–1998
Flip Wilson 1933–1998
A trailblazer of a comedian, Flip Wilson was one of America’s most popular entertainers in the first half of the 1970s. He created comic characters that have remained indelibly etched in the public mind, and enriched the American language with such catch phrases as “The Devil made me do it!” Wilson was the first African American performer to catch on as host of a major weekly network variety show on television, and, like the musical artists of the Motown label with whom he shared a mainstream appeal, brought blacks to a new level of exposure and acceptance in the American entertainment industry, paving a future path for such smooth comedian/hosts as Arsenio Hall and Keenen Ivory Wayans. Having suffered the effects of a shattered family life, Wilson all but abandoned his career at the peak of his fame so that he could take a part in raising his own children.
Born Clerow Wilson in Jersey City, New Jersey, on December 8, 1933, he was one of a large family—published accounts have given a number of Wilson children as high as 24. When Wilson was five years old, his father, also named Clerow, took him to see a comedy team called Stump and Stumpy. “When I heard the roar of the laughter, a voice in me went off,” Wilson told People. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be,’” he continued. But the family was mired in extreme poverty. “We were so poor, even the poorest looked down on us,” Wilson was quoted as saying in the New York Times. Two years later, he ended up in a foster home when his mother abandoned her crowd of children. After running away more than a dozen times, he was sent to reform school.
Wilson quit school at age 16 and joined the U.S. Air Force, lying about his age to gain entrance. His growing storytelling abilities amused his fellow troops, and they bestowed upon him the nickname “Flip,” derived from the expression “to flip out.” Discharged from the Air Force in 1954 after having reached the rank of Airman First Class, Wilson worked as a bellhop in a San Francisco hotel that featured an in-house nightclub. He persuaded the manager to let him perform a short comedy routine—Wilson pretended to be a drunk who wandered onto the stage—between acts of the floor
At a Glance…
Born Clerow Wilson in Jersey City, New Jersey, December 8, 1933; died of liver cancer, Malibu, California, November 25, 1998; father’s name Clerow; divorced; children. Nickname “Flip” derived from expression “to flip out.” Military service: Joined United States Air Force at age 16; reached rank of Airman First Class by year of discharge, 1954.
Career: Comedian and television variety show host. Performed routines while employed as bellhop, San Francisco, mid-1950s; toured small comedy clubs, late 1950s-early 1960s; appeared on Tonight Show, 1966; appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, late 1960s; starred in variety show special, 1969; became famous for Geraldine character, late 1960s; host, The Flip Wilson Show, 1970-74; Films include: Cancel My Reservation, 1972, Uptown Saturday Night, 1974, Skatetown, U.S.A., 1979, Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, 1979; starred in Charlie & Co.; made guest appearances on The Drew Carey Show, Living Single, 227, Here’s Lucy, The Andy Williams Show, Love, American Style.
show. He was immediately hired, and his comedy career was launched.
That night in San Francisco proved to be the beginning of ten years of hard touring, crossing the country to perform in small clubs and theaters, at first mostly to black audiences. Wilson’s following grew, and by the mid-1960s he was known well enough to take his chances in New York. He did several stints as Master of Ceremonies at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, and made an impression on veteran black New York show business figures. When comedian and vaudevillian Redd Foxx, later the star of television’s Sanford and Son, was asked in 1965 by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson who was the funniest comic of the current scene, Foxx immediately named Wilson and catapulted him to a new level of success.
A Tonight Show booking for Wilson himself ensued promptly, and it was followed by appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and on the adventurous Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, where Wilson’s “Here Come de Judge” routine anticipated his later uncanny ability to wring maximum comic effect out of a simple one-line phrase. In late 1968 or 1969, Wilson starred in a variety show special. Although previous black stars as recognizable as Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. had failed in variety show outings, he was given his own show. The Flip Wilson Show debuted September 17, 1970, on the NBC network. By its second season the show had risen to the Number Two position in the weekly Nielsen ratings, and Wilson was earning upwards of a million dollars a year.
Neither the most uproariously funny nor the most profound comedian of his time, Wilson nevertheless rose to the top of the world of comedy. His strength was that he looked both backward and forward in his approach. Wilson’s comic style drew on long traditions of black theater, with its emphasis on storytelling, impersonation, and a near-musical sense of the entertainment that could be wrung out of a single phrase. Yet as a host, Wilson would not have been out of place in the 1990s, easily and quick-wittedly interacting with guests of all races, chatting with no less a mainstream figure than John Wayne while still giving needed airtime to black stars such as Foxx, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown.
In the public mind, Wilson was most identified with the characters he created on stage and on screen, most famously Geraldine—in the words of Washington Post writer Bruce Britt, “‘a streetwise soul sister’ clad in miniskirt and copper-colored wig who brimmed with sheer enthusiasm and favored the unforgettable statements “What you see is what you get,” and, most famously, “The Devil made me do it!” “The secret of my success with Geraldine,” the Post quoted Wilson as saying, “is that she’s not a put-down of women. She’s smart, she’s trustful, she’s loyal, she’s sassy … women can like Geraldine, men can like Geraldine, everyone can like Geraldine.” Another of Wilson’s stock characters was the Rev. Leroy, of the Church of What’s Happening Now, whom Wilson said he modeled on a preacher he had heard in church as a child.
As Britt pointed out in the Washington Post, “[h]is humor was steeped in inner-city traditions, yet it was nonthreatening enough for mainstream consumption.” Wilson avoided politics, and rarely ventured into the sexual territory mined by his young contemporary Richard Pryor.He excelled at long shaggy-dog stories and in insult-based vaudeville humor with a long tradition on the black stage. In one routine, he portrayed a woman riding on a train who becomes incensed when another passenger tells her that her baby is “ugly.” She complained to the conductor, who tries to set things right by offering the woman a free meal. “And a banana for your monkey,” he added for the punchline.
Although it is sometimes reported that Wilson’s show was knocked into decline by competition from CBS’s The Waltons in 1974, the show remained in the ratings Top Ten when Wilson decided to leave. His motivations were simple, and, in the intense world of Hollywood, most unusual: he wanted to devote himself to family life. Married and divorced twice, he had five children. “I wanted the whole cookie and I got it,” he was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary. “Now I want to spend more time with my children—make sure they don’t go through what I did.”
Apart from occasional guest slots and two short-lived series in the 1980s, Wilson stayed true to his word, entering a near-total retirement. Perhaps in the heyday of television’s Saturday Night Live comedy series he could rejoice at the similarities of actor Dana Carvey’s Church Lady to his own Geraldine. Wilson died of liver cancer at his home in Malibu, California, on November 25, 1998. “I’ve had all that you could ask for,” he had told People a year before his death. “The fat lady has sung, and there’s a standing ovation.”
Boston Globe, November 28, 1998, p. G1.
Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 1998, p. 9.
Jet, September 1, 1997, p. 60; October 5, 1998, p. 58.
Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1998, p. 6.
New York Times, November 26, 1998.
People, December 14, 1998, p. 69.
U.S. News & World Report, December 7, 1998, p. 16.
Variety, December 7, 1998. p. 65.
Washington Post, November 27, 1998, p. B6; November 28, 1998, p. F1.
—James M. Manheim
December 8, 1933
November 25, 1998
Comedian Clerow "Flip" Wilson was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. Abandoned by his mother in 1940, he was placed in foster homes from which he ran away so often that he was sent to reform school. Wilson quit school at the age of sixteen, lied about his age, and joined the U.S. Air Force. He served until 1954.
Wilson then worked as a comic in small clubs and by 1960 was working in New York. An appearance in 1966 on the Tonight Show was followed by many others and led to appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and to his own special in 1968. NBC starred him in the Flip Wilson Show, which ran from September 17, 1970, to June 27, 1974. The program ranked among the top ten.
Wilson was the first black entertainer to host a successful weekly variety show on network television. He was noted for his storytelling and his flamboyant impersonations of characters like the sassy waitress Geraldine.
After Wilson left the show in 1974, he went into semi-retirement, appearing in specials and in movies like Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979). He also starred in a daytime game show and a situation comedy that were failures. In the last decade of his life, he limited his performances to occasional guest appearances on situation comedies. He died of liver cancer.
Manheim, James M. "Flip Wilson." In Contemporary Black Biography, edited by Shirelle Phelps. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999.
Watkins, Mel. "Flip Wilson, 64, Over-the-top Comic and TV Host, Dies." New York Times, November 26, 1998.
robert l. johns (2001)