On this day in comedy on September 17, 1970 The Flip Wilson Show premiered on NBC!
The hour-long show was the first successful variety series on network television starring a black person. Using a Theater-in-the-Round stage format comedian, Wilson was able to display all the action to a live audience that was seated all around the stage. It seamlessly blended music and comedy skits. In its first two seasons the show was #2 in the Nielsen ratings.
There may have been no show had it not been for Redd Foxx. While making an appearance on “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson, Redd was asked who was the next up & coming comedian. Without blinking Redd said, “Flip Wilson”. This unselfish act led to NBC executives tracking Wilson down and offering him an unprecedented deal for television at the time. Not only would the show of this relative unknown run a full hour in primetime, Wilson would also own it. Thank you, Redd Foxx.
Though Wilson was a top notch comedian, his most memorable comedy contribution came in the form of his alter-ego “Geraldine”. The character of the sassy, wise-cracker with a boyfriend named, “Killer”. It was Wilson in drag and it was hilarious. Geraldine had catchphrases: “The devil made me to it” and “What you see is what you get.” Geraldine Jones flirted with everybody from football star, Joe Namath to singing idols like Ray Charles. Geraldine was so popular that after she made an appearance on the show, nobody cared if Wilson returned as a man or not. Regardless, Wilson did return as a man of many incarnations. He played white collar workers, blue collar workers and was famous for his character, Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now; a con man with a Bible.
Wilson’s variety show gave plenty of first class variety. He was not only able to showcase the artistry of then little known acts like Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Albert Brooks and Sandy Duncan, but the show’s roster of musical guests reads like a Who’s Who of legends. “The Flip Wilson Show” featured the talents of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Melba Moore, Lola Falana, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Pointers Sisters and Mahalia Jackson (in one of her last public performances) as well as white performers such as The Osmonds, Roy Clark, Johnny Cash, Pat Boone and Bobby Darin. Many of the singing talent also appeared in skits with Wilson.
Wilson owned the rights to the show and moved onto his own soundstage in the fall of 1972. However, the variety genre was in decline and that along with a personal breakdown by Wilson cause the show to be cancelled. Its last episode aired June 27, 1974.
In its four season run, “The Flip Wilson Show” was nominated for an Emmy 18 times. It won twice: Outstanding Variety Series and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music. Wilson also won a Golden Globe Award in 1971 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: