Question: Did Flip Wilson first hit it big on TV with his variety show? I thought I remembered reading that his first show was a sitcom, but my brother disagrees. Stephen R., Allentown, Pa.
Televisionary: Your brother's right on this one, Stephen, though you're not far off the mark. The late Wilson, who succumbed to liver cancer in 1998, first hit the air with two TV specials before launching his hit Flip Wilson Show in September 1970 on NBC. But if it's any consolation, NBC executives initially considered a sitcom for Wilson before going with the variety format because there was already a lot of that genre on the air; and years after his show breathed its last in June 1974, he returned to TV with the short-lived CBS comedy Charlie & Co., which ran from September 1985 through the following July.
"[W]e were afraid of tackling that terrible variety-hour competition with him," NBC exec Herb Schlosser recalled in 1971. "So we came up with a little half-hour situation comedy in which he would play a talk-show personality on a local television station. We looked at that, and then we looked at Flip and we said, 'The hell with it. Let's go for broke with the variety show.' It was a last-minute decision and we haven't regretted it."
They had no reason to, though worrying about variety saturation early on was not unreasonable. There were no fewer than 16 comedy-variety shows on the three networks when Wilson's show debuted, and such big names as Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis failed with the format. All the variety shows competed for the same guest stars, and no black performer had succeeded with such a TV show since Nat "King" Cole did it more than 14 years earlier.
I should note, too, that Wilson and partner Monte Kay deserved at least some of the credit for nixing the sitcom. With the guidance of others, Wilson had shot a 1968 variety special for NBC that didn't turn out well. ("It was all about clever people and satirical things, and all wrong," Kay said of the weak effort.) Execs started exploring other directions for Wilson, but he and Kay held out for variety done their way. This time Wilson got to do his thing, presenting such characters as the famously campy drag concoction Geraldine. The special grabbed a 42 share and was No. 8 in that week's ratings, so Wilson and Kay had some leverage to hold out for a variety series.
"It took three meetings to convince us that this was just a lot of blue-skying," Kay said of the sitcom idea. "You know, kids and dogs all over the screen." The idea was dropped, and the show Wilson and Kay wanted made it onto the schedule.
Not that I want to suggest Wilson's success came easily. Far from it.
Wilson, whose real first name was Clerow, had a tough life growing up in Jersey City, one of 18 kids born to a mom who walked out on them and a hard-drinking dad who turned them over to the foster-care system. After a brief reform-school stay, young Wilson did some time in the Air Force and then turned to the comedy biz, learning his craft by reading books and taking extensive notes on what worked and what didn't in his own act. He struggled for years, at one point spending his last nickel on a pay-toilet bathroom because he didn't have anywhere else to sleep. He bounced around the bar-and-nightclub circuit before hooking up with Kay who'd managed only jazz musicians before and eventually landed a Tonight Show appearance with some help from Redd Foxx (Sanford and Son), a stroke of luck that launched him into the big time.
And in that big time, Wilson scored with characters like the aforementioned Geraldine and the clownish "Church of What's Happening Now" head Rev. Leroy, inventions he called up from memories of his military service and travels. As the sassy Geraldine, Wilson famously yelled to his audience, "Let's put it all together, honey. Woooo!"
They did, and he did for a solid four-year run.