When I heard that Rick of the Classic TV Blog Association was to host the CLASSIC TV VARIETY SHOW BLOGATHON, my mind flooded with all the possibilities. The variety show format was in its hey-day in the 1950’s through 1970’s. With much of my childhood spanning the late 60’s and 70’s, I have fond memories of some entertaining, funny and well.. very groovy variety shows. Some of my favorites include “Donny and Marie”, “The Captain and Tennille”, “The Sonny and Cher Show”, “The Smothers Brothers Show” “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” But I narrowed my pick to a true pioneer for its time, “The Flip Wilson Show.”
I’m a fan of this hour long variety show that ran for four seasons on NBC from September 17, 1970 to June 27, 1974. The main star was comedian Flip Wilson. And while hard to imagine now, it was ground-breaking 43 years ago to have an African American headline such a hugely successful primetime show on network television, with a mostly white audience. Not to mention this premiered only 6 years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. Yet by its 2nd season, it was the 2nd most watched television show in the nation.
Flip Wilson started his career playing to small clubs doing stand-up then rose to fame thanks greatly to Redd Foxx. After Foxx discovered this bright new talent, he overwhelming endorsed Flip to Johnny Carson. Consequently, Flip appeared on The Tonight Show more than 25 times with guest spots on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “Love American Style.” NBC offered him a multi-year contract for his own show following his part of a Bob Hope special that showcased a parade of young comedic talent.
The format was comprised of comedy skits starring Flip himself as a variety of characters, along with popular stars of that time and music acts of the highest caliber. These music performances reflected some of the best and hottest in the industry: Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Mahilia Jackson, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Pointer Sisters, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five were some of the legendary highlights. Also ground-breaking was the stage itself. Flip’s opening monologues and skits were performed in a “theater-in-the-round” stage set with the audience wrapped around practically every side of it; a first in variety show style. The sets were often sparse too, which was intentional to focus on the talent.
The Flip Wilson Show became the platform for some hilarious characters that nearly pushed the society envelope such as con-artist Reverend Leroy, Freddy the unsuccessful Playboy, and Sonny the White House janitor who always outsmarted the President. But my favorite of all of his characters was the ever sassy, brash and flirty Geraldine Jones. When Geraldine came on stage, the audience would roar. Dressed in drag in the latest 70’s minidress fashions, Flip Wilson portrayed Geraldine as the confident ‘tell it like it is’ hip gal with charasmatic charm. Inspired by Butterly McQueen’s Prissy in GONE WITH THE WIND (1940), Geraldine was always outspoken, loyal to her beau “Killer” (never actually seen on screen) and known for her hilarious one-liners and taglines… “The devil made me do it!”, “what you see is what you get, honey!”
What’s memorable about this variety show was the diverse and long list of celebrity guests. Many times the musical acts would partake in the skits. Some key regulars were some of the funniest talent in television. Tim Conway, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Melba Moore, Bobby Darin and Roy Clark all made repeated appearances. In addition, dozens more of the most popular names in comedy and entertainment made guest spots over the 96 episodes… Bing Crosby, Bill Cosby, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller, Don Rickles, Tony Randall, Johnny Cash, Jack Benny, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marty Feldman… the impressive list goes on and on.
One of the reasons for the show’s extraordinary popularity besides showcasing the biggest stars of the entertainment industry, was the writing talent. Flip was the creator behind many of his characters and shared his writing talent along with the rest of the top-notch writing team of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Herbert Baker, Hal Goldman, Hal Goodman, Al Gordon, Don Hinkley, Sidney Green, Larry Klein, Richard Hills, Stan Burns, Mark Marmer, Bob Schiller, Peter Gallway, Paul McCauley, Norman Steinberg, Bob Weiskopf and Winston Moss. The Flip Wilson show earned 16 Emmy nominations and won 2 of the golden statues for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music (1971) and Outstanding Variety Series- Musical (1971).
The Flip Wilson Show was cancelled after it’s fourth season, just as television began to transition away from the variety show format. It will forever be remembered for being a hilarious show of many monumental firsts and one of the last great variety shows from that era. A few years ago and because of my nostalgic memories of this show, my sister gave me the DVD collection of these shows as a very sweet gift to me. But my strongest memory related to this show was my Flip Wilson/Geraldine doll. As a little girl I owned a soft doll that had colorful fabric sewn of Flip on one side and Geraldine on the other. It had a pull string with a plastic ring that played several pre-recorded taglines that either Flip or Geraldine would say. I LOVED that doll. Who knows whatever happended to it but if you ever run across one that has actual working sound- please alert me!