On this day in comedy on December 8, 1933, Comedian, Actor, Clerow Wilson, Jr., (aka Flip Wilson) was born in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Wilson arrived on the planet during the Great Depression and his father was constantly looking for work. There were 10 siblings and Wilson’s mother took poverty and near starvation as her cue to leave the family. His father couldn’t handle all those kids alone and so he placed many of them in foster homes. Wilson was one of them and after bouncing around he lied about his age when he turned 16 and enlisted in the Air Force. His sense of humor soon landed Wilson an assignment working special services, traveling around entertaining other troops.
When he was discharged in the mid-50s, Wilson found work as a shill. He’d act drunk in the audience in between acts. That bit of distraction soon became his act up and down the coast of California. He later wrote a routine and found his way on stage and into the professional world of stand-up comedy. Wilson became an Apollo Theater regular and it wasn’t long before he made appearances on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (where he became a cast regular). His Grammy Award winning comedy album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress got him noticed by the network brass and soon after Flip Wilson had his own TV show.
The Flip Wilson Show in 1970 ushered in an era of top rated black programming by every network. NBC gave Wilson a primetime variety slot that put him as must see TV for Nielsen homes and the rest of America. Wilson exposed black acts seldom seen on mainstream shows: The Jackson Five, The Temptations, Redd Foxx and others. George Carlin was one of the writers as well as on camera talent. And the talented Flip Wilson had a plethora of sketch characters; his most memorable being Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now and the super popular – Geraldine Jones and her catchphrases, “The Devil made me do it” and “What you see is what you get”. The public ate it up and the show earned Wilson a Golden Globe and two Emmys.
In 1974 The Flip Wilson Show went off the air and Wilson took a rest. He later made guest appearances on sitcoms (Here’s Lucy) and variety shows (The Dean Martin Show). Wilson did films (Uptown Saturday Night, The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh) and a televised musical (Pinocchio with Sandy Duncan and Danny Kaye) before returning to TV as host of People Are Funny in 1984 and in a sitcom called Charlie & Co. in 1985. His last televised appearance was on the Queen Latifah sitcom, Living Single on Fox in 1993.
Flip Wilson died of liver cancer on November 25, 1998 in Malibu, CA.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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