Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Flip Wilson Show

Recently the second sequel to The Conjuring was released. It was titled The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. What many members of Generation Z may not know is that the phrase "The Devil made me do it" did not originate with the producers of the Conjuring movies or even their screenwriters. Instead, "The Devil made me do it" originated with comedian Flip Wilson. It was one of the catchphrases of his character Geraldine. While only individuals of a certain age remember The Flip Wilson Show today, in the early Seventies it was wildly successful, coming in at no. 2 in the Nielsen ratings for its first two seasons. While other African Americans had hosted variety shows prior to Flip Wilson, arguably his was the first to be successful.

Flip Wilson began his career in the late Fifties, touring what was then known as "the Chitlin' Circuit." His career really began to take off in 1965 after Redd Foxx, when asked by Johnny Carson whom the funniest current comedian was, replied "Flip Wilson." Flip Wilson was booked on The Tonight Show and appeared on the show several more times, as well as appearing on such shows as The Kraft Music Hall, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Laugh-In, and The Carol Burnett Show.

In 1969 Flip Wilson hosted his own special on NBC, The Flip Wilson Special. It was on the special that he introduced his popular character Geraldine Jones. Unlike earlier female characters played by male characters, Flip Wilson did not mean to belittle with Geraldine, but instead create a character who was strong, proud, and who spoke her own mind. Flip Wilson also had success with comedy records. His 1967 album Cowboys and Colored People proved to be a hit, as did his 1970 album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.  The later album centred on the character of Geraldine.

The success of The Flip Wilson Special in 1969, as well as Flip Wilson's album, led directly to The Flip Wilson Show. From the beginning The Flip Wilson Show differed from other variety shows with regards to its stage. Its stage was a circular platform around which the audience were seated (with some even behind sets at times), essentially a theatre-in-the-round. As might be expected, The Flip Wilson Show also featured top African American performers on a regular basis, including Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Pointer Sisters, The Supremes, and The Temptations. Other top singers featured on the show were Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark,  Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Roger Miller, The Osmonds, and Sha Na Na. Several other top performers were featured on The Flip Wilson Show, including Lucille Ball, George Carlin, Art Carney, Tim Conway, Phyllis Diller, Sandy Duncan, Marty Feldman, Redd Foxx, Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, The Muppets, Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin, and many others.

Of course, regardless of who the guest star of the week was, much of the attraction of The Flip Wilson Show was the sketches featuring his various characters. Geraldine appeared frequently, and the success of the show lead to her catchphrases, "The Devil made me do it," "When you're hot, you're hot," and "What you see is what you get" appearing on t-shirts, pinback buttons, and magnets. Another character on the show was Reverend Leroy, the pastor of the Church of What's Happening Now! It was always strong hinted that Reverend Leroy was a con man. Another character was swinging bachelor Freddie Johnson. Freddie's sketches often saw him on a date with one of the guest stars of that week. Among the women with whom he sought dates were Lola Falana and Denise Nicholas. Other characters were blue collar worker Marvin Lattimer and White House janitor Sonny.

Much of the success of The Flip Wilson Show can be credited to its writers, which included Flip Wilson himself. Stan Burns was a veteran of The Steve Allen Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Hal Goodman has worked on The Red Skelton Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Bill Schiller's credits included I Love Lucy, The Red Skelton Show, and The Lucy Show (which he had developed). Ultimately, there are too many writers who worked on The Flip Wilson Show to be listed briefly, although many of them had worked on some very well-known shows. Flip Wilson himself wrote about a third of the material. He also edited much of the other writers' work.

The Flip Wilson Show proved wildly successful upon its debut on September 17 1970 on NBC. For the 1970-1971 season it ranked no. 2. It also ranked no. 2 for the 1971-1972 season. Unfortunately, in the 1972-1973 season CBS scheduled The Waltons opposite The Flip Wilson Show. Initially The Waltons was low rated, but CBS mounted a promotional campaign that helped the show immensely. Ultimately, The Flip Wilson Show dropped to no. 12 for the year, while The Waltons ranked no. 19. As to their competition on ABC, The Mod Squad was cancelled at the end of the season. Unfortunately for The Flip Wilson Show, the audience for The Waltons continued to grow. For the 1973-1974 season, The Flip Wilson Show dropped to no. 50 for the year, while The Waltons came in at no. 2. Flip Wilson elected to end the show rather than continue.

During the run of The Flip Wilson Show, Flip Wilson also appeared in two animated specials based on himself and his characters. The first was Clewrow Wilson and the Miracle of P.S. 14 (Clerow Wilson was Flip Wilson's given name), which aired on November 12 1972. It featured Geraldine, Reverend Leroy, and Freddie Johnson. The second special was Clerow Wilson's Great Escape, which aired on April 3 1974. It featured Geraldine Jones and Reverend Leroy.

While it only lasted four years, The Flip Wilson Show would have an impact. Its catchphrases have persisted in the English language ever since, long after the show went off the air. Geraldine's catchphrase "What you see is what you get" would be abbreviated s WWSIWYG by computer programmers to refer to any editing software in which what one sees on the screen will be what it will look like when printed. "The Devil made me do it" as been used as the title of TV show episodes, music albums, and now even the subtitle of a movie. An argument can be made that The Flip Wilson Show would have an impact on future sketch comedy shows, from Saturday Night Live (which Flip Wilson would guest host in 1983) to In Living Color. While today's generation may not remember The Flip Wilson Show, it continues to have an influence on popular culture.

1 comment:

Buddhacab said...

Thanks for this brief history. I was recently trading links of Albert Brooks’ routines on the FW show with a long distance friend and we were wondering why the show ended. I enjoyed Flip Wilson even though I never cared for Geraldine - I have never found the idea of Men in drag very funny. Even when the Pythons did it. Would loved to have seen Flip’s two animated specials.