Flip Wilson Show, The

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




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.

Clerow "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 made guest appearances on shows like Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and the first episode of Love, American Style. On 22 September 1969, he appeared with 20 other up and coming comics in a Bob Hope special, which was followed by a Flip Wilson Show special, a pilot for the series to come. The special introduced many distinctive elements that would be part of the series. The most striking element was the small round stage in the middle of the audience, from which Wilson told jokes and where guests sang and performed sketches with minimal sets.

For his opening monologue in that special, Wilson told a story about a minister's wife who tried to justify her new extravagant purchase by explaining how "the Devil made me buy this dress!" The wife's voice was the one subsequently used for all his female characters, whether a girlfriend or Queen Isabella ("Christopher Columbus going to find Ray Charles!"). Later in the special, he put a look to the voice in a sketch opposite guest Jonathan Winters. Winters played his swinging granny character, Maudie Frickert, as an airline passenger, and when Wilson donned a contemporary stewardess' outfit--loud print miniskirt and puffy cap--Geraldine Jones was born. The audience howled as Winters apparently met his match.

NBC was encouraged with the special to go ahead with a regular series, and The Flip Wilson Show joined the fall lineup on 17 September 1970. Wilson appeared at the opening and explained that there was no big opening production number, because it would have cost $104,000. "So I thought I would show you what $104,000 looks like." Flashing a courier's case filled with bills before the camera and audience, he asked, "Now, wasn't that much better than watching a bunch of girls jumping around the stage?"

That monologue illustrated one of chances Wilson and his producer, Bob Henry, took. They did away with the variety show's staples of chorus lines, singers and dancers, and allowed the star and his guests to carry the show. The creative gamble paid off as The Flip Wilson Show defeated all comers in its time slot and won two Emmy awards in 1971: as Best Variety Show and for Best Writing In A Variety Show.

The show was also a landmark in the networks' fitful history of integrating its prime-time lineup. Nat "King" Cole had been the first African-American to host a variety show, which NBC carried on a sustaining basis in 1956. Despite appearances by guests like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte, the show could not attract sponsors, nor could it obtain sufficient clearances from affiliates. Cole left the air at the end of 1957. Later, NBC was more successful with Bill Cosby in I Spy, and Diahann Carroll as Julia. The week after The Flip Wilson Show's premiere, ABC debuted its first all-black situation comedy, an unsuccessful adaptation of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park.

During the run of his show Wilson created several other characters who flirted with controversy. There was the Rev. Leroy, of the Church of What's Happenin' Now, whose sermons were tinged with a hint of larceny; Freddy the Playboy: always, but unsuccessfully, on the make; and Sonny, the White House janitor, who knew more than the president about what was going on.

But Geraldine Jones was by far the most popular character on the series. 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 ("What you see is what you get, honey!"). 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.

Another part of the show's appeal was its variety of guests. Like Ed Sullivan, Flip tried to appeal to as many people as possible. The premiere saw James Brown, David Frost and the Sesame Street Muppets. A later show offered Roger Miller, the Temptations, Redd Foxx and Lily Tomlin, whom Freddy the Playboy tried to pick up. Roy Clark, Bobby Darin and Denise Nicholas joined Wilson for a "Butch Cassidy and the Suntan Kid" sketch.

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.

-Mark R. McDermott


Flip Wilson

The Jack Regas Dancers

The George Wyle Orchestra


Bob Henry



September 1970-June 1971   Thursday 7:30-8:30

September 1971-June 1974   Thursday 8:00-9:00


Adir, Karin. The Great Clowns of American Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1988.

Amory, Cleveland. "The Flip Wilson Show." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 10 October 1970.

"Flipping It." Newsweek (New York), 12 August 1968.

Franklin, Joe. Joe Franklin's Encyclopedia of Comedians. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel, 1979.

"I Don't Care If You Laugh." Time (New York), 19 October 1970.

O'Neil, Thomas. The Emmys: Star Wars, Showdowns, and The Supreme Test of TV's Best. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Pierce, Ronchitta. "All Flip Over Flip." Ebony (Chicago, Illinois), April 1968.

Robinson, Louie. "The Evolution of Geraldine." Ebony (Chicago, Illinois), December 1970.

Thad Mumford on writing for The Flip Wilson Show with Lorne Michaels
Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf on writing for The Flip Wilson Show
Tim Conway on appearing on The Flip Wilson Show
Hank Rieger on publicity for The Flip Wilson Show
Who talked about this show

RuPaul Charles

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RuPaul Charles on discovering drag, and being influenced by Flip Wilson's character "Geraldine" on The Flip Wilson Show

Tim Conway

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Tim Conway on appearing on The Flip Wilson Show

Carl Gottlieb

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Carl Gottlieb on writing for a series of Flip Wilson Specials (along with Lorne Michaels) after the end of The Filp Wilson Show
Carl Gottlieb on working with Richard Pryor on the 1974 Flip Wilson Special
Carl Gottlieb on working with Flip Wilson on the Flip Wilson Specials
Carl Gottlieb on working with Peter Sellers on the Flip Wilson Specials
Carl Gottlieb on Flip Wilson's character "Geraldine" not appearing in the Flip Wilson Specials

Thad Mumford

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Thad Mumford on writing for The Flip Wilson Show with Lorne Michaels

Hank Rieger

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Hank Rieger on publicity for The Flip Wilson Show

Bob Schiller

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Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf on writing for The Flip Wilson Show

Herbert S. Schlosser

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Herbert S. Schlosser on programming The Flip Wilson Show, and on other NBC variety shows

Bob Weiskopf

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Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf on writing for The Flip Wilson Show

Larry Wilmore

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Larry Wilmore on television he watched growing up, and on what The Flip Wilson Show meant to him as an African-American kid

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