Flip Wilson – Comedy Trailblazer
I hope people never forget Flip Wilson. He is one of my all-time favorite comedians. Flip Wilson publicly appeared as an articulate, well-dressed, and seriously talented guy throughout his comedy career, but his formative years were anything but laughable. Despite his success as a comedian, his upbringing was unstable at best, and full of negligence. But as anyone familiar with the industry knows, sometimes the roughest life can lead to the sharpest sense of humor.
While Flip’s life is a bit of a downer, knowing his full story really illustrates how this incredible guy turned his impoverished life into a comedy goldmine. So, even if you find yourself trying to hold back a manly sniffle or a few tears, keep in mind that there’s a silver lining to this story. Flip is one of the greatest underdogs to have turned his fortune around with his quips, stories, and characters.
Flip Wilson was born in 1933, named Clerow Wilson, and was one of eighteen children. (Eighteen F-ing kids!) It wasn’t long before his mother couldn’t manage her extra-large brood and deserted the family. Foster care wasn’t kind to Flip and he ran away from more than a dozen homes before getting placed in reform school.
Flip had said in interviews that his first true birthday celebration was during that first year in reform school. His first birthday gifts ever were a can of shoe polish and a box of Cracker Jacks from a teacher who seemed to have a soft spot for him. Unfortunately, Flip’s father returned to the picture and took custody of the young guy. His father was a carpenter and work came sporadically. Mr. Wilson once commented that even the poorest of the poor could turn their noses up at him. It made the reform school seem like a paradise in comparison.
Here’s where the famous Flip Wilson drive, charm, and determination come into play. When Flip was sixteen years old, he lied about his age and enlisted in the air force. His nickname, Flip, was given to him by his fellow soldiers as he entertained them with his crazy stories, even acting them out, complete with ridiculous and hilarious caricatures of everyone involved.
Flip’s commanding officer noticed that he was intelligent and could have a bright, promising future. The Major encouraged Flip to finish his education and learn to type—which is when Flip began writing down his comedy material. When he was finished with his service, he found a job in a San Francisco hotel as a bellhop where he worked up the courage to ask his manager to let him try out his comedy routine between the current acts in the hotel’s showroom. He killed in his first performance, to the point that the hotel had him come back on stage as a regular from then on out.
Wilson was then able to build up enough momentum to be able to make a living as a comedian. Between nightclub acts at the hotel, a businessman from Miami offered to sponsor him for $50 a week. Of course that seems like chump change nowadays, but inflation makes that pretty significant for the time. That financial boost gave Flip what needed to make huge strides forward until he was giving regular performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY.
What’s considered by many to be Flip’s big break was when he was scheduled to perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The appearance came on the heels of the legendary Redd Foxx’s endorsement, saying that Flip Wilson was the funniest comedian around at that time. That gig led to other ones including The Ed Sullivan Show and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. For those experiencing a huge generational gap and have no idea what these programs are, do yourself a favor and watch a few clips. You’ll catch up pretty quick and be happy that you did.
Next, you’re going to want to check out one of the biggest successes in Flip’s career, when he hosted his own show, The Flip Wilson Show. He tackled just about every issue with light, candid humor and achieved high ratings for a variety show. Flip also earned an Emmy Award in 1972 for Outstanding Writing Achievement for a Variety Show.
Wilson didn’t just rely on stories and jokes for his laughs. He created some of the comedy world’s most memorable characters including the Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now, Sonny the White House janitor, and the beloved Geraldine Jones, a working-class black woman who dates a man named Killer.
Flip’s comedy routines gave the world some of its most notable phrases that can still be heard today. “What you see is what you get”, “The devil made me do it”, and “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not!” all come from Wilson’s comedy genius.
During the height of Flip’s popularity, he was featured on four different comedy albums, and was given a Grammy Award for 1968’s Best Comedy Recording. His career provided him with acting opportunities as well as commercial appearances. His most notable performance might be the movie Uptown Saturday Night where Flip appeared alongside Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.
As the decades passed, Flip scaled back on performing and did what he could to keep his personal life private. Especially after he was granted custody of his children and left performing to give more time to his kids.
Flip Wison passed in 1988 after a battle with liver cancer. The loss was great for the entertainment industry as well as those close to him. But his legacy continues to live on. If you’ve never heard of Flip Wilson, watch his clips wherever you can find them. Take in the knack he had to make light of some of the heaviest issues of his time and admire how they still hold up in many ways today.
Once you’re familiar with Flip Wilson and his work, you’ll see that he has had a heavy influence on many of today’s top comics. With Flip Wilson, it’s truly, “What you see is what you get,” in all the best ways possible.
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