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Appreciation

Flip Wilson's Comedy Transcended Era's Color Barrier

November 28, 1998|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It didn't matter, says fellow comedian David Brenner, that Flip Wilson was "the first black man to wear a dress."

"He could make any set joke that existed funnier than the original," Brenner said of Wilson, who died Wednesday night of liver cancer at his Malibu home at 64. "That was his brilliance. He could take a 40-second joke and turn it into a five-minute skit."

Wilson will no doubt be forever associated with his spitfire alter ego "Geraldine," a character he immortalized on "The Flip Wilson Show," which ran on NBC from 1970-74.

Those shows now air on the cable channel TV Land, which will run an eight-hour tribute to the comic on Monday with shows that include guest stars such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball and Bill Cosby.

Though the variety show is considered a tired TV format today, "The Flip Wilson Show" was so popular in its heyday that a CBS drama called "The Waltons" was given little chance to compete against it Thursday nights at 8.

In addition to Geraldine and her boyfriend "Killer," Wilson popularized the characters of Reverend Leroy, pastor of the Church of What's Happenin' Now, and Herbie, the surly Good Time ice cream man.

Today, Wilson is credited as the first black host of a highly rated variety show--a reflection in part that the comedian's humor transcended color barriers. If Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory represented a school of black comics who translated their backgrounds into crackling, confrontational comedy routines, Wilson was from a different school--not as angry or political, and thus not as much of a threat to mainstream white audiences.

"I would say he lived on the same street as [Bill] Cosby, a black street that was accepted by whites," said Brenner, who first saw Wilson work in Las Vegas in the 1960s.

By contrast, Brenner says, Richard Pryor "was uncompromising. He worked black ghetto and lived black ghetto. He worked in the idiom of his environment."

Wilson was born Clerow Wilson on Dec. 8, 1933, in Newark, N.J. He dropped out of high school when he was 16 to join the Air Force, where he got his nickname. The troops used to say "he's flipped," hence the name. When his four-year hitch was up, he took a job as a bellhop at San Francisco's Manor Plaza Hotel, where he persuaded the manager to let him do a stand-up comedy act.

It was an appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1965 that really launched Wilson's career, although not before the comedian had been bumped from the show several times, remembers ventriloquist Willie Tyler, who worked with Wilson at the Apollo Theater in New York--before Wilson hit it big--and later as a guest on "The Flip Wilson Show."

"His stand-up was doing Geraldine, but without a wig," Tyler said of the old days. "He'd look to his left and talk to Geraldine, then move to his left, look right and reply back."

The story goes, says Brenner, that after his show went off the air in 1974 Wilson got in a Cadillac convertible and wandered around the country. Even if not factual, the story makes sense, because Wilson seemed to disappear from the comedy scene after his show ended, save for personal appearances.

Two comeback tries--a revival of the quiz show "People Are Funny" in 1984 and the sitcom "Charlie & Company" a year later--were short-lived flops.

Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, said that Wilson came into the club seven years ago with fellow comics Paul Mooney and Slappy White. White went onstage and bombed; Mooney disappeared. That left Wilson.

"A lot of people didn't know who he was," Masada said. "But as soon as he did the voice of Geraldine, people started laughing,"

* TV Land airs a marathon of "The Flip Wilson Show" Monday from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

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