Honoring Flip Wilson -- The groundbreaking comedian passed away at 64

Honoring Flip Wilson

Flip Wilson, who died last week of cancer at age 64, hit it big in the ’70s, cross-dressing as the sass-talking Geraldine and coining pop-culture catchphrases like ”The devil made me do it!” and ”What you see is what you get.” What you saw in Wilson was a warm man with a round face and a wide grin, a man who’d spent a tough youth in foster homes and a hitch in the Air Force. He emerged into adulthood with an intense desire to please and to be accepted, but always on his own terms. During a period of heightened racial tensions and black radicalism, Wilson’s nonthreatening comedy was seized upon by black and white audiences with equal fervor, and he became, in 1970, the first black stand-up comic to host his own variety show: the four-season Flip Wilson Show, on NBC. And in each of its first two seasons, Flip placed No. 2 in the ratings.

The other major black comedians of Wilson’s era were then then-well-established Bill Cosby and the brilliantly mercurial Richard Pryor; Wilson’s style nestled somewhere in the middle. He put a firm racial spin on even his most lighthearted bits. An early crowd-pleaser was a stand-up routine in which the comedian impersonated Queen Isabella of Spain sending Christopher Columbus off on his mission to find the New World. ”Chris gon’ find Ray Charles!” Wilson’s Isabella yelled triumphantly, over and over; for Wilson’s Africanized queen, the king of rhythm &amp blues was America.

While today’s most challenging black comedian, Chris Rock, has made his debt to Pryor clear, he also owes something to Wilson. For Wilson made it possible for blacks to take creative freedom for granted; he demonstrated that you could be a clown without sacrificing your dignity or becoming an Uncle Tom. You could assume the mask of another person, but your true soul would shine through. Wilson had this knack and used it with an effectiveness all the more impressive for the way he made it seem so casual and natural. His talent made him do it.