The Flip Wilson Show was the first successful network variety series
with an African-American star. In its first two seasons, its Nielsen
ratings placed it as America’s second most-watched show. Flip Wilson
based his storytelling humor on his background in black clubs, but
adapted easily to a television audience. The show’s format dispensed
with much of the clutter of previous variety programs and focused on
the star and his guests.
“Flip” Wilson had been working small venues for over a decade when Redd
Foxx observed his act in 1965 and raved about him to Johnny Carson. As
a result, Flip made over 25 appearances on the Tonight Show, and in
1968, NBC signed him to a five-year development deal.
Wilson’s most popular and enduring character was the sassy, brazen Geraldine Jones.
Flip wrote Geraldine’s material himself and tried not to use her to
demean black women. Though flirty and flashy, Geraldine was no “finger
popping chippie.” Geraldine was also based partly on Butterfly
McQueen’s character in Gone With the Wind: unrefined but outspoken and
honest. She expected respect and was devoted to her unseen boyfriend,
“Killer.” It also helped that Flip had the legs for the role, and did
not burlesque Geraldine’s build, though NBC Standards and Practices had
asked him to reduce Geraldine’s bust a little. As Geraldine, in wig,
high heels and mini-dress, Wilson coined phrases that became part of
the national pop vocabulary, such as “The devil made me do it,” and,
“The secret of my success with
Geraldine is that she’s not a put-down of women,” he once said. “She’s
smart, she’s trustful, she’s loyal, she’s sassy. Most drag
impersonations are a drag. But women can like Geraldine, men can like
Geraldine, everyone can like Geraldine.”
The Flip Wilson Show
turned out to be one of the last successful variety shows. CBS’ 1972
offering, The Waltons, became a surprise hit, winning the same Thursday
time slot. By 1973-74, it was John-Boy and company who had the second
most popular show of the season. NBC put Flip Wilson’s show to rest,
airing its last episode on 24 June 1974.