On this final day of Black History month I choose to stay true to my nature as a contrarian and not highlight a popular figure torn from the pages of black history text books. Instead, my choice is a very personal one.
As a very young boy, around age 5, my family would gather around the television to watch two shows in particular – Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh-In” and “The Flip Wilson Show” starring comedian Flip Wilson. At 5 years of age, I obviously had no clue as to the historical significance of this funny black man, Flip Wilson, on our television screen. All I knew then was that it was family time and Flip was gut-busting funny. My brother Roland and I would get quite the kick out of imitating Wilson’s various characters and we couldn’t resist saying “the devil made me do it” before going to bed.
Wilson’s hour-long variety show aired from 1970-74 and is credited with being one of the first television programs starring a black person as lead to become highly successful among a white audience. While the “Nat King Cole Show” was the first to feature a black lead, Wilson’s show achieved the kind of success that Cole’s show could not. Certainly not because of a talent deficiency but because advertisers were afraid to sponsor the program. At its height, The Flip Wilson Show had around 40 million weekly viewers. Nearly double that of Seinfeld.
Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and Trustee Professor of Television Radio & Film at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University says that “Flip Wilson is one of the three most important pioneers in the integration of television during its first generation. Nat King Cole hosted his own show in the 1950s with an elegance and dignity that provided a little antidote to the likes of Amos ‘N’ Andy and Beulah, which had aired just a few years earlier; Bill Cosby starred in both a drama (I SPY) and a sitcom (The Bill Cosby Show) in the 1960s; but Flip Wilson’s show engaged a level of ratings and national popularity that topped them all.”
Wilson’s trail-blazing efforts were not without discomfort and criticism, particularly from black folk. At a time when few African Americans, if any, were seen on television, Wilson’s most popular character Geraldine caused a stir among some in the black community who accused Wilson of causing detrimental harm to the image of black masculinity. Thompson remembers, “Some people were disturbed that, of all the characters Filp Wilson portrayed on his show, “Geraldine” was far and away the most popular. Some argued that having one of the few black males on television spending a portion of each show in a dress was problematic on a number of levels.” Of Wilson’s many contributions, Thompson noted, ” He provided a showcase for black musicians that, over the run of the show, provided an important anthology of performances by Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson (in one of her last performances), Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, and lots more.” Clearly a man devoted to providing a platform seeking wider recognition for talented black performers in need of increased exposure.
Geraldine Jones was indeed problematic for Wilson who described her as, “honest, frank, and affectionate…Geraldine is liberated, that’s where that’s at.” Wilson, a talented and serious stand-up comedian, struggled to rise above the popularity of Geraldine Jones. A struggle that I learned later after watching HBO’s documentary Mo Funny: Black Comedy in America. He vowed to friends and fellow comedians to not let Geraldine eclipse him.
I was not concerned with such issues as black masculinity as a young boy. All I knew at the time was that Flip Wilson was funny and that Geraldine was funny and they both brought me great joy. The joy of laughter. The joy of family togetherness. And an understanding, even at such a young age, that a black cat, Flip Wilson, a man who I though resembled my dad, was on the tv doing stuff that I’d seen no other black man do. And for that I salute him.