What You See Is What You Get! Flip Wilson Specials Are On getTV

Flip Wilson on getTV

It’s no exaggeration to say that Flip Wilson was TV’s first African American superstar. In an era when people of color were under-represented in primetime, the New Jersey native (born Clerow Wilson) headlined one of network television’s most popular programs. His Emmy-winning NBC variety show was the second-highest rated series between 1970 and 1972. And Wilson, as producer, walked a fine line between exposing performers of color to a wider audience and delivering a show that appealed to a traditional variety show demographic.

When the weekly series came to an end after four years, its star transitioned to periodic specials. And we are proud to present these hard-to-find programs on getTV!

The Flip Wilson specials feature everything viewers loved about The Flip Wilson Show: breezy monologues, hip comedy sketches, and some of the top comedy and musical guests of the era. And best of all: three of the four shows feature his sassy female alter ego Geraldine Jones, who turned “What you see is what you get!” and “The Devil made me do it!” into national catchphrases. While comics dressing in women’s clothing was nothing new on TV – Milton Berle did it in the medium’s infancy – Geraldine wasn’t just a cheap gag. She was a nuanced character with a backstory (including a boyfriend named “Killer”) and her fame arguably eclipsed that of her creator. More importantly, Wilson could say things as Geraldine that he couldn’t say as Flip.

Geraldine was introduced in the 1969 variety special that convinced NBC to give Wilson his own series. But her fame was jump-started by the Grammy-winning, chart-topping 1970 comedy album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, released on Wilson’s Little David record label. Flip donned the dress infrequently in later years, claiming that Geraldine had “retired,” so these segments will carry special significance for longtime fans.

Wilson’s October, 1974 special Flip Wilson…Of Course was produced and written by Lorne Michaels, who would go on to make history with NBC’s Saturday Night Live a year later. Of Course features comedian Richard Pryor, comic actress Lily Tomlin, British actor Peter Sellers, and vocalist Martha Reeves of Martha And The Vandellas. Pryor, who first worked with Flip on TV in The Kraft Summer Music Hall in 1966, kicks off the show as a preacher who introduces the blustery Rev. LeRoy, Flip’s second-most-famous character. (Rev. LeRoy sketches often mingled storytelling, social commentary, and topical satire.) Tomlin reprises Ernestine, the “one ringy dingy” telephone operator from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Sellers delights with his typical collection of oddly idiosyncratic characters. And Reeves sings “Wild Night,” backed by dancers including the dynamic Damita Jo Freeman of Soul Train fame.

The next three specials – all titled simply The Flip Wilson Special – followed every few months (in December of 1974 and February and May of 1975). They hew even closer to the original Flip Wilson Show format, with the reinstatement of Flip’s opening monologue and appearances by Geraldine functioning as the centerpiece of the hour.

One installment features Sammy Davis Jr., Australian singer Helen Reddy and actor William Conrad (then starring in CBS’ Cannon). Reddy sings “Emotion,” Geraldine headlines an elaborate Vegas stage show (with a cameo from Alan Thicke, then a writer on the show) and Sammy sings a standards medley in his typical show-stopping style. Reddy and Flip’s working relationship began in 1973 when he executive produced her weekly variety show as a summer replacement for his own. She has a delightful, low key charm on camera that may surprise viewers who only know her as the singer of “I Am Woman.”

In another special, Cher guest stars and Richard Pryor returns, along with M*A*S*H star McLean Stevenson. Highlights include Cher (in a typically gorgeous outfit) singing “Bell Bottom Blues,” Stevenson and Flip doing a two-man monologue, and Cher reprising her Laverne Lashinski character (from The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour) in a sketch with Geraldine. In this show you really see the great comic chemistry Flip had with Pryor, after multiple appearances together on the weekly series. (The two also worked together in Sidney Poitier’s action comedy Uptown Saturday Night in 1974.)

And in a third of The Flip Wilson Special, he welcomes actress and singer Diahann Carroll, comedian Freddie Prinze, and singer Paul Williams. Highlights include a disaster movie parody set in a laundromat, Carroll singing “Natural Woman,” and Geraldine competing in a beauty pageant. Prinze, whose rapid ascent to stardom ended tragically in 1977, makes this episode a must for fans of ‘70s TV. He was a natural on camera, and his hugely popular sitcom Chico And The Man is rarely rerun, so this a rare chance to see him in his prime.

In later years, Flip was a familiar face on variety, talk, and sketch shows and he starred in the 1985-86 CBS sitcom Charlie & Co. with Gladys Knight, Della Reese, and a young Jaleel White. But he never again experienced the popularity he enjoyed during his early-to-mid 1970s heyday. The Flip Wilson specials offer an opportunity to see a groundbreaking TV personality at the top of his game, in a format he mastered and helped refine for a new generation. They are not to be missed, honey.

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