Awesome Men Throughout History: Flip Wilson
When Dave Chappelle famously lost his mind and walked out of his career back in 2005, people acted like it was an unprecedented abandonment of show business by a comedian at his peak. Some people still feel that way about it.
Fact is, someone else beat Dave to it. In the early 1970s, there weren’t many black entertainers more popular than this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History, Flip Wilson. Flip had a variety show on NBC that enjoyed high ratings and eleven Emmy Award nominations, of which it won two, and had reached a level of success that no other black comedian had achieved up to that point.
And then, in 1974, he quit.
That kind of temper fit was nothing new for Flip. For one thing, he was born in New Jersey, which is enough to saddle a person with a lifetime of unresolved anger. Secondly, he grew up in the foster care system after his mother abandoned his family and his father—a generally unemployed handyman—declared himself unfit to raise his children. Flip’s life sucked so much that he lied about his age and joined the Air Force, where his high energy, “flipped-out” personality earned him the nickname “Flip.”
Once discharged from the military, Flip spent ten years not really getting anywhere as a touring comedian, and then Redd Foxx namedropped him during an appearance on The Tonight Show and it was off to the races. Flip was invited to do Carson and Ed Sullivan’s shows, and that exposure made him a headliner. By 1970, he had his own TV show.
The Flip Wilson show’s success was due to it just being fun. Flip was an extremely likable host whose character-based nightclub act had left him well prepared for a variety show. The most famous character he created was his drag routine, a trash-talking woo girl named Geraldine Jones whose “the devil made me do it!” catchphrase became a national fad.
Curiously, the idea that black men were so often put into drag roles by Hollywood was one of Chappelle’s main complaints about show business.
Back on topic, Flip was also more than willing to showcase other black entertainers, which revitalized what would have been a stale variety show format by that point; a good portion of the show’s white audience had never seen the black musicians and performers on his show before. Flip also hired up-and-comers like Richard Pryor and George Carlin to write for the show, which kept things fresh as well.
Type-A personalities are not without their flaws, though. Flip was a short-fused micro-manager who didn’t trust anyone (perhaps justifiably) and smoked pot almost constantly, even training his sons to roll joints for him.
By 1974, with ratings flagging and his frustrations with the politics of show business mounting, Flip decided to walk away. Making only sporadic public appearances after the , he spent the rest of his life indulging his vices—pot and women, mostly—and trying to make time for his children before his death in 1998.
I’ll leave you with this clip of Flip Wilson as Geraldine, trying to seduce Ray Charles.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.