Today is Flip Wilson’s birthday (1933-1998).
The Flip Wilson Show is undoubtedly not as “forgotten” as most of the ones I post in this series. After all, it ran for four full years (1970-1974), as opposed to four full episodes. But it has to be said that, for such a seminal figure Wilson himself has fallen sadly by the wayside.
In chronology and significance he falls in between Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. While the other two men are frequently celebrated (Cosby as the first black everything in television; Pryor as an unprecedented truth-teller), Wilson, a landmark crossover figure is largely forgotten. Whereas I bet many or most young people are familiar with the work of the other two men, they’ve probably never heard of Flip.
Wilson’s show was playfully hip at roughly the level of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (a show on which Wilson had done many guest shots prior to his own show). George Carlin was one of the writers and cast regulars. And, like Laugh-in, and the later Saturday Night Live, it was the source of many national fads and catch-phrases, the most famous of which was “What you see is what you get”, delivered by Wilson’s popular drag character, Geraldine.
Wilson’s show as nominated for an unprecedented 11 Emmy awards, winning two. After the show went off the air in 1974, Wilson began performing a lot less in order to spend more time with his family. You can see him in movies like Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979). In 1985 he starred in the sitcom Charlie & Co., which lasted one season. His last credit was a guest shot on The Drew Carey Show (1996). Liver cancer took his life in 1998.