Flip Wilson (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
At the peak of comic Flip Wilson's popularity, some of his contemporaries criticized him for not doing enough to advance the cause of African-Americans. After all, his hit television program, The Flip Wilson Show, gave him access to millions of viewers each week in the heavily segregated America of the early 1970s.
Yet his humor was lighthearted and apolitical. Richard Pryor even told Flip he was "the NBC house Negro."
But Flip had a strategy all his own –– slower and more subtle.
"He felt his contribution was not to get up in people's faces and yell 'Equality now!' His contribution was to get his black face into a house that had never seen one," said Kevin Cook, author of the recently released biography Flip: The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar.
"If a kid said, 'I hate Negroes,’ and another said, 'That one's funny. I like him,' that was going to be his contribution."
Wilson, who died 15 years ago from liver cancer, "transformed television," Cook said. Time magazine called him "TV's First Black Superstar" in a cover story. A Los Angeles Times review of Cook's book said Flip was "revolutionary," presenting a program that was "unreservedly black in its tone and rhythms."
"People revere Richard Pryor and George Carlin. They think they were titans. And they were, as big as it gets, and maybe funnier than Flip. But who knows how far they might have gone if he hadn't been there first," Cook said. Both Pryor and Carlin were writers on Wilson's show.
Flip's humor was "more storyteller than one-line stand-up comic," his New York Times obituary noted. "His winding tales and uninhibited use of the timbre and resonance of black dialect were often compared to the Yiddish inflections and stories of the comedian Myron Cohen. Richard Pryor once told him, ''You're the only performer that I've seen who goes on the stage and the audience hopes that you like them.''
His most famous character was Geraldine, an outspoken, sexy good-time girl with a distinctive, high-pitched voice. Tyler Perry of current Madea fame was just an infant when Flip sashayed across the stage, playing off stars like Bill Cosby, Tim Conway and Burt Reynolds. Geraldine’s favorite sayings –– "When you're hot, you're hot; when you're not, you're not," "The devil made me do it," and '"What you see is what you get" –– became national catch phrases. (The final one is now common computer lingo, abbreviated to WYSIWYG.)
Geraldine, Flip once said, "carried me longer than my mother did."
Flip was born Clerow Wilson, Jr. in New Jersey on Dec. 8, 1933. (The nickname "Flip" came from his Air Force days, when his rambling tales featuring different dialects led fellow airmen to conclude he was "flipping out.") His wasn't a happy childhood: His mother abandoned the family, leaving Flip and his 10 siblings with their father. The boy ended up in multiple foster homes, became a frequent runaway, and landed in reform school. Flip was eventually reunited with his father, who struggled to make ends meet. In later comedy routines, Flip would joke that his family was so poor that homeless people felt sorry for them, Cook said.
After the Air Force, Flip found a home in comedy. He traveled the country with his standup act, performing at clubs and hotels. Sometimes, the same hotels that allowed him to perform in their ballrooms refused to allow him to sleep in one of their guest rooms, Cook said. At one point during Flip's rise, singer Bobby Darin demanded that the comedian share the bill with him at a Las Vegas hotel. The two became lifelong friends.
Flip's big break came when his close friend Red Foxx was a guest on the Tonight Show in the mid-1960s. Host Johnny Carson asked Foxx to name the funniest comic currently working. Without a pause, Foxx said, "Flip Wilson."
Flip was immediately invited to perform on Carson's show. At the time, Carson was a star maker: If he liked Flip, there was no telling how far he could go.
On the night Flip was scheduled to appear, he ended up getting bumped for time. They rescheduled, and he was bumped again. And then the third time was the charm.
Flip took the stage and performed his "ugly baby" routine . (It's still on YouTube.com.) After he finished, the camera panned to Carson, who was flopping around with laughter. "That was one of the funniest lines I ever heard in my life," Carson said.
"Flip was golden from there," Cook said.
Later, Flip would fill in on nights Carson took off; sometimes, the show's ratings would go up when he did. The Flip Wilson Show premiered on NBC in 1970.
In 1974, at age 40, Flip decided to walk away from his show. While it was still Top 20 in ratings, it was beginning to slip. He wanted to go out on top, a very wealthy man thanks to careful investing.
Flip's personal life was more troubled than his easygoing persona suggested. He had two broken marriages, struggled with drugs and wasn't the best father, Cook said. But Flip's contributions to his field and those that came after him should not be forgotten.
"Nobody worked harder at this craft than he did. … At one point, he was the most famous comic in the world," Cook said. "He doesn't get credit for making these strides. He made people who were prejudiced start by liking one black person."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."