Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Flipping Out

When I borrowed Kevin Cook's biography of Flip Wilson from my local library I wasn't expecting much.  I knew Flip as a smooth performer who could tell jokes well, but did little of interest besides hosting a variety show in the early 70s that hasn't exactly held up.  I didn't expect his life to be so compelling.

He was born Clerow Wilson in 1933 in Jersey City. The tenth of twelve kids, his family was poor, and got even poorer when his mom took all the money and ran off with another man. Little Clerow went to live with his grown sister Eleanor, who also cheated on her husband. For the rest of his life, Wilson had trouble trusting women.

Seeing a comedian at a live show, he decided that's what he wanted to do.  Meanwhile, he lived in foster homes, ran away a lot, was put in a boys' school and in general had a tough time of it. But occasionally he'd meet friendly adults who'd help him out.  Though underage, he signed up for the air force (and right after that the Korean War started) but didn't have the education to fly planes. He did learn to type, however, and became a prized clerk. Then he shipped out to the Pacific--took him a few days to find his sea legs--and found out he could entertain when he asked to give a lecture on the sex life of crabs and scored big laughs. He was asked to do more routines and a popular one had him reciting pseudo-Shakespeare. One airman in the audience shouted "He flippeth his lid!" and a new name was born.

After his discharge in 1954, he decided on a long-range, fifteen year plan to make it to the top.  He also was quite a reader, and was taken with Max Eastman's 1936 classic Enjoyment Of Laughter, a fairly heady book, but Flip was the analytical type, trying to figure out what worked and what didn't when most comedians were more instinctual.

He worked as a bellboy at a San Francisco hotel where the highly popular Louis Jordan and his band were playing.  Flip asked to talk a bit during their breaks, and soon found himself an attraction.  He got a reputation and took to the road, scoring on the Chitlin' Circuit.

He spent years acquring craft, and crossed over to smarter clubs and whiter audiences.  He had a black edge to his act, but wanted to be able to make any audience laugh.  By the early 60s, he felt he was ready for the big time.  A few other comtemporary black comedians were making noise--Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby especially--while Flip was still on the outside looking in.  Then a friend, Redd Foxx, started hitting it big, and when Johnny Carson asked Redd who's the funniest guy around, he said "Flip Wilson." In no time, Carson wanted Flip.  This was back in the days when the Tonight Show was in New York and lasted 105 minutes.  Flip was booked a couple times, always in the last slot, and got bumped when Johnny let the bigger names keep talking. But eventually he got on and scored big. Flip became a regular, even a guest host, and became one of the big comedy names of the 60s.

During this time, Flip had relationships with many woman.  Then there was Blonell, the mother of his children.  She lived in Miami and he was generally on the road, sending her money and occasionally dropping in.  Flip also smoked an awful lot of marijuana and did more than his share of cocaine.

By the end of the decade, he was big enough that NBC wanted him to star in a show.  He and his manager insisted they do it his way or not at all--it would be a variety show (even when sitcoms seemed a safer bet) and Flip wouldn't just star in it, he'd produce it and own it.  They agreed and The Flip Wilson Show, debuting in 1970, became a top TV hit.

The show was a mix of old and new, as well as black and white.  Any given episode might have some old-time performer who'd made a mark in movies of TV, and some new act that was hot on the charts.  It was a mix the audience loved, but it was Flip they loved above all.  He'd come out and do a monologue, and then appear in all the sketches that hour.

Wilson worked like a madmen, all his waking hours, to make sure the show ran just as he envisioned.  It sometimes dealt with black topics, but it was light on its feet and never angry.  His characters--many of whom he developed in stand-up--became national obsessions, especially Reverend Leroy of the Church Of What's Happening Now and even more Flip's tough, sassy Geraldine. His catchphrases, like "The devil made me do it" and "What you see is what you get" spread like wildfire.

Flip was at the top, partying with the biggest names in show biz.  He also was able to help old friends. One of his closest was Bobby Darin, whom he'd opened for in Vegas.  Darin's career was in a lull, and his appearances on one of TV's highest-rated shows helped bring him back.  (Darin had a weak heart and died in 1973--Flip took it hard.)  He also hired a couple of comics he'd known from a few years back, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.  They both had breakdowns in the late 60s and went from traditional comics to cutting edge figures--which made Wilson sort of a transitional figure, hipper than what had come before, but not as hip as his charges.  After four years, his show was on the downslide, partly due to competition from The Waltons, and Flip shut down the show before it was canceled.

His fifteen-year plan had worked, but what do you do when you've reached the summit and seen it all?  He was rich enough not to have to worry about money, but he had to do something.  He brought his kids over to his home in Malibu (mom didn't want to come so she got a nice settlement), played Vegas, did charity work, fired his manager, got married again, kept doing drugs and contemplated suicide.  He also did a bit more TV, including Charlie & Co., CBS's attempt to clone the huge new Cosby sitcom, but that lasted one season.

In the 90s he got liver cancer and died in 1998.  At his death he was mostly a forgotten figure--certainly not as famous and beloved as Richard Pryor or Bill Cosby. But Flip had helped blaze a trail that quite a few comedians have traveled down since.

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