In Sunday's Calendar (and online here), I review "Flip: The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar," a worthwhile new biography of the late comedian by Kevin Cook ("The Last Headbangers," "Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything"). The sprightly Wilson, who died in 1998 of liver cancer at the age of 64, is not exactly unknown today: "The Flip Wilson Show," which aired from 1970 to 1974 on NBC, reran on TV Land from 1997 to 2005 and currently may be seen on Magic Johnson's Aspire network.
But in his time it was impossible not to know him: Weekly viewership of Wilson's variety show numbered around 40 million at its height; at its best, "Seinfeld" did only half that well. His exclamatory catch phrases ("The devil made me do it!," "What you see is what you get!"), his elaborate, hand-slapping, elbow-bumping, hip-bumping "Flip Wilson handshake" was repeated everywhere, by children of all ages, creeds and colors.
Performed in the round with a minimum of props, with a portion of the audience visible behind, "The Flip Wilson Show" was a new sort of variety show. (With the bad chronological luck to emerge in the twilight of variety -- after two years at the top of the ratings, it slid lower in the third and fourth.) It had an unusual sense of authenticity, of happening in the moment. But Wilson, who was 36 when the show began, was also a comic of the old school: a joke-teller and player of parts, rather than an analyst of society or self. Social commentary was implicit rather than explicit in his work, just as the characters he played reflected shards of his own troubled history, but without indictment.
That the Aspire website describes him as "famed comedienne Flip Wilson" is probably just a spelling error -- but it's an appropriate one, given the character he's best remembered for: the sassy, sexual, self-possessed, fully inhabited, completely real Geraldine Jones.
"She may not project the image of a refined, sophisticated lady," Wilson said of her, "but she's honest, she's frank, she's affectionate. ... Geraldine is liberated, that's where that's at." She also allowed him to address, and even dominate, the world's great and mighty with unflappable cool, whether Muhammad Ali, seen in the clip above from "The Flip Wilson Show," or then-President Ronald Reagan in the clip below from a 1983 Kennedy Center tribute to Bob Hope.
By the time of the Kennedy Center appearance, Wilson was already deep into what might be called an early semi-retirement. Later that year, two days after turning 50, he hosted "Saturday Night Live"; it is fascinating to see him in the context, and it's clear from the excited crowd reaction that he was still deeply beloved. In the six-minute cold opening, which contained echoes of his own early history, he played Geraldine as the estranged mother of Eddie Murphy's gay hairdresser, Dion. ("I hadn't even dropped out of school yet," Geraldine says of her teenage motherhood, "so I had to give you up.") As character actors the two have much in common, and they play wonderfully together. (The entire episode is available to Hulu Plus subscribers, but Wilson's opening monologue and a sketch in which he plays an airplane washroom attendant are free online to all.)
Geraldine wore on Wilson eventually. In later years, Cook writes, "When fans asked Flip to do Geraldine for them, he shook his head. 'Sorry. She's retired,' he said. 'Mr. Wilson's going the rest of the way alone.'"